50 years after the Equal Pay Act

Money can’t buy you love – but it does pay the bills.

The Equal Pay Act passed into law fifty years ago, on 29 May 1970 (since replaced by the 2010 Equality Act). But the fight for equal pay continues. Christine Bird reflects on a recent victory by Glasgow council workers, and the lessons that we can now learn from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Glasgow Equal Pay Strike. 23 October 2018. Photo: Pete Cannell

Don’t let anyone tell you that money can’t buy happiness. Staff were spinning metaphorical cartwheels all over our council nursery, when we received our payout offers after winning Glasgow’s Equal Pay Dispute in January 2019. Members of UNISON, UNITE and the GMB – mostly women – including home carers, caterers, cleaners, school workers and other council staff had brought Glasgow to a standstill with our October 2018 strike action. Glasgow was the largest and last of the long-standing Equal Pay disputes to be settled across the UK.

Workplaces were alive with the sound of worms turning. Child Development Officers (myself included) received substantial amounts, but it was the lowest paid who felt life-changing benefits. Janitors paid off their mortgages while cleaners and catering staff took their families on dream holidays with enough left over for a rainy day. (Exact amounts remain a mystery, since we were legally compelled to sign a non-disclosure clause.) The payout brought parity for ‘women’s work’ with our male counterparts. Credit where it’s due: men supported us at key moments, such as the refuse workers who refused to cross our picket lines.

Victory was bittersweet. Due to a technicality, many of us received just five years’ back pay instead of the full twelve years’ since the case was lodged. Worse, the dispute lasted for so long that some died before ever seeing it settled.

Yet on a positive note, not only did the payout bring increased material security, it also brought something rare and inestimable: we felt valued. Public opinion backed us. Our strike won equal pay and buried old stereotypes about ‘low-skilled’ work. Nursery teachers do not just play in the sand all day. And school cleaners care deeply about infection control in their settings. Work usually done by women has historically been low-paid and undervalued. For example, teaching and nursing were jobs for unmarried women, apparently done for love of the work rather than money. Florence Nightingale transformed nursing, but for her it was a kind of religious calling.

Her legacy lives on, not only in improved hospital hygiene and data analysis, but also in the persistent belief that nurses are naturally nurturing beings rather than highly skilled professionals requiring decent pay. There’s a rational economic basis to these tired tropes. Globally, women work more than men, but are paid less – why pay more for something you already get cheap, or even free? The principle of Equal Pay continues to threaten the established economic order.

Coronavirus has catapulted female-dominated industries from invisibility into the spotlight in jig-time. The pandemic is a curveball that no campaigner ever predicted. Cleaning, carework, retail, childcare: we have always known that our jobs are essential. Now society has caught up. The essential workers list is topped by the lowest paid, while bankers and hedge-fund managers are nowhere to be seen; doubtless because their jobs are… well, not essential. In contrast, keyworkers nurture, protect, educate. Without us, the economy, and society as a whole, would grind to a halt. The Thursday evening clap has been a beautiful, heart-warming token of respect. Still, it’s no wonder that keyworkers have started to ask for more practical forms of appreciation. Starting with decent pay.

Covid-19 has made two things in the UK abundantly clear. Firstly, we are not all ‘in it together’. The least wealthy families have become even poorer and more stressed since lockdown began, as evidenced for example by rocketing demand for foodbanks. Yet many families not living on the breadline are now also struggling, albeit for different reasons. It is impossible to carry out paid roles at old productivity levels while juggling childcare and the inevitable extra housework brought by having the kids at home.

This largely explains the rush to get kids back into school and childcare in the face of grave misgivings from leading experts including the National Education Union and British Medical Association. Even society’s most privileged members have been brought up short. Some appear unable to comprehend the idea that they might have to look after their own offspring. It is telling not only that Dominic Cummings thought his wife being potentially ill justified a 260-mile violation of lockdown rules, but also that his peers deemed his actions justified. Where are the minions? Ministers of Government have better things to do than menial family chores. You just can’t get the staff…

Which brings us to society’s second Covid-19 revelation: Mary Poppins is pure fiction. Childcare does not happen by magic while all around do work that is actually important. Looking after children is work: as intense, rewarding, unrelenting and important as any other. Further, if one Financial Times article featuring instructions on how to clean a toilet is anything to go by, modern-day Britain is not short of people who have barely cleaned in their lives. Meanwhile, their temporarily unemployed housekeepers (usually female, often migrant) are now struggling to make ends meet.

It took Glasgow’s council workers almost 50 years after the 1970 Equal Pay Act to achieve equal pay. Judging by recent events, we have a way to go before ‘women’s work’ is truly viewed as equally valuable.

Act now!

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