Time's up for unequal pay

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Illustration by Sophia Zarders

48 years after the Equal Pay Act, companies are still finding ways to pay women less, as Carrie Gracie’s case against the BBC revealed. Anna Blake investigates the complexities of gender and pay today.

In this centenary year of the Representation of the People’s Act — when some women, those aged over 30 who met specific property qualifications, were first granted the right to vote — much has been made of how far we have come.

A key element beyond voting rights is the fight for equal pay. Equal pay was first enshrined in law in 1970 (though it didn’t come into force until the end of 1975), following years of struggle by women workers, in some cases alongside men, for the eradication of separate male and female pay scales — most famously in the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968, brought to screen in the film Made in Dagenham.

But women are still fighting for equal pay, from the BBC through to the supermarket giants of Asda and Tesco. And in an era of a growing women’s movement, particularly enhanced by the struggle around sexual violence and the prominence of #MeToo, the debate about pay is firmly back on the agenda.

Carrie Gracie and the BBC

Carrie Gracie — the BBC’s former China editor — has become a figurehead for battles over equal pay. At the end of January, Gracie, alongside the National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet, presented to the culture select committee after months of public debate. Gracie claims she had been a victim of illegal pay discrimination at the corporation.

Gracie had been earning nearly 50 percent less than men such as America editor Jon Sopel — who took part in a leaked off-air “joke” with Today presenter John Humphrys over Gracie’s case. She recounted at the select committee how she had been told that the reason for the salary disparity was that she had been “in development” for some of her tenure as China editor, despite years of professional experience.

BBC figures released in 2017 showed that just five of the BBC’s top 20 earners were women. There was also a noticeable lack of older women and BAME journalists, presenters or actors in the top 20. The BBC reviewed its pay structure last year, and found men are being paid nearly 10 percent more on average than women and that around 500 female staff are paid less than their male counterparts in similar roles.

But the issue at the BBC is not just about equal pay. Gracie’s case reveals a wider story about sexism, a lack of workers’ rights, and pay secrecy that has a disproportionately negative effect on women in the workplace.

A key argument in Gracie’s stand was that pay reflected a more fundamental issue — that of respect. She refused to be silenced by the offer of a one-off financial settlement, making the point that unequal pay was systemic, not an individual grievance, and that at its heart was a lack of respect and an undervaluing of women’s contribution.

Gracie is one of a growing chorus of voices challenging corporations to live up to the letter and the spirit of the Equal Pay Act — and to go beyond it.

A number of class action cases on equal pay are emerging, targeting some of the big supermarkets.

Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket, is at the centre of one of the cases. Leigh Day, the solicitors representing around 1,000 Tesco workers, argue that work on the shop floor — deemed “non-manual” and more often done by women — is of equal value to that carried out in warehouses, usually by men, who are paid more than the women shop floor workers.

If it is proved that both areas of work are comparable, Tesco could face a bill of up to £4 billion in back pay for the women affected.

Four hundred Asda workers first brought a similar equal pay case in 2014. In 2016 an employment tribunal said that the Asda women’s work was of equal value to the men’s — by which time 7,000 current and former workers had brought cases. Most of the cases are still working their way through the legal system, following an appeal by the company.

Although the pay gap is wider in the private sector, public sector jobs are not immune. Research from teaching union NASUWT in 2016 showed that men in local authority primary schools earn over £2,600 more on average than women. The impact of neoliberalism on education has had another effect, with deregulation and academisation leading to an even greater disparity. In primary academies the pay gap is more than £4,700.
Pay gap
The gender pay gap for all workers, using median earnings, currently stands at 18.4 percent. This gap is marked each year by the Fawcett Society’s “Equal Pay Day” — the day on which women effectively stop earning compared to men. Equal Pay Day fell on 10 November in 2017. The fact that it has fallen on around the same date for the past three years says something about the pace of change. According to the Fawcett Society, at current rates it will take 100 years to close the gender pay gap.

The gender pay gap and equal pay are different things. The latter is inscribed in law, and means that men and women should be paid the same amount to do the same, or comparable jobs (sometimes called “equal work”).

There are huge limitations to the law on equal pay as it stands. First and foremost, it is premised on individual women identifying a problem and taking out individual claims. As Labour MP Emily Thornberry has pointed out, equal pay is a collective responsibility and there should be an obligation on all employers to treat men and women equally. That requires transparency about pay which is often lacking, especially in the private sector.

Another limitation of the law is that it currently requires a woman to find a “comparator” — a named man in a comparable role at the same company who is being paid more. This fails to take account of the continued “occupational segregation” which sees women concentrated in roles which tend to be paid less and where there might not be any male workers for comparison.

Here the distinction between equal pay and the gender pay gap blurs. The pay gap is the difference in average or median earnings between men and women. One central reason for the pay gap is precisely this occupational segregation. Women are more likely than men to do one of the “five Cs”: caring, catering, clerical, cashiering or cleaning. These roles are poorly paid and undervalued. For example, 75 percent of cleaners in Britain are women — and earn on average just £7.50 an hour. Men are also more likely to be managers and CEOs, which affects the overall averages reflected in pay gap statistics.

In the case of Carrie Gracie and others at the BBC, and the women in Asda and Tesco, women are likely to be working in similar jobs but are nevertheless paid less. If the courts find in their favour, this will probably be shown to be due to discrimination, which is another factor behind the pay gap.

Performance pay

The drive towards performance-related pay has also resulted in a widening gap between men and women. Women have been shown to be less likely to receive bonuses linked to “good performance”, a reflection of their status in wider society. With performance pay, decisions over pay rises are usually down to individual managers, and this is where the possibility of discrimination increases. In many cases the distribution of pay rises in such systems is guided by quotas or rankings, whereby managers are forced to give some workers higher pay rises, and some lower, or no rises. In many cases these systems have meant that women, or BAME, or older workers fare worse than their colleagues, often for no good reason other than the quota or “forced distribution”.

The lack of transparency associated with performance-related pay systems also has an impact on equality. If you can’t find out what colleagues are earning it is very difficult to establish a claim. It is also the case that such firms don’t usually advertise salaries, which tends to favour men as they are more likely to pitch for higher pay, especially during the hiring process.

Another crucial explanation for the gender pay gap is around maternity pay, leave and childcare — opening up space for a debate around whether the gender pay gap is really a “motherhood pay gap”. This is borne out by the statistics: whereas the gap between women and men in their 20s is at around 5 percent, this nearly doubles when they reach their 30s.

Career progression is particularly affected by women having to work part-time in order to take care of children, with 42 percent of women working part-time compared to 12 percent of men. Part-time workers earn comparably less than full-time workers and have more limited pay progression. A couple with two children will have the woman contributing as little as 24 percent to lifetime earnings, compared to up to 49 percent in couples with no children.

There were significant equal pay fights in the 1970s and 80s, often first in the private sector. But since then, most cases have arisen in the public sector. In local government, the introduction of “single status” — a process whereby manual and non-manual jobs were placed together in the same pay structure for the first time, the use of job evaluation to create single grading structures at local authorities highlighted that male manual workers’ jobs were of equal value to those done by women, but were often paid more. This was because the men, often in jobs such as refuse or roads, had managed to win higher pay in the 1970s and 1980s through the introduction of productivity bonus schemes that over time became consolidated into basic pay.

But with single status, pay was equalised by reducing the men’s pay to the level of the women’s, rather than raising women’s pay. As a result, women were forced to take out equal pay claims to make up for historic grievances. At first, unions were slow to act on their women members’ behalf, in part because they’d negotiated single status and were reluctant to jeopardise bargaining relations with employers and other (male) groups of workers.

Indeed one union, the GMB, was subject to a claim for indirect discrimination by women members on grounds of a back pay settlement that was lower than it might have been. The women accused the union of prioritising pay protection for the male workers whose pay was to be reduced. Initial claims were supported by so-called “no-win, no-fee” lawyers, some of whom were former union officials. But over time, as it became clear that councils would have to be forced to recognise and redress historic grievances, the unions supported members’ claims.

New legislation

In 2017 the Tories introduced new legislation on gender pay gap reporting. By April 2018 companies with more than 250 employees are meant to publish their overall pay gaps between men and women. However the legislation doesn’t stipulate any penalties for not doing so. So far only a tiny fraction of companies have published their gender pay gaps, and there is a big question mark over how many will do so by the deadline.

Revealing the gap is useful — it shows us a small glimpse of how far there is to go. But the overall gap does not show differences in pay for comparable jobs — where equal pay legislation is actually being flouted.
There may be more equal pay claims. But the law as it stands is stacked against women workers.

The government’s gender pay gap regulations stopped short of requiring employers to publish gaps according to grade or job, since this would shine a spotlight on areas where there might be potential for equal pay claims.
Tory cuts to legal aid mean that it will be even more difficult for workers — and women workers in particular — to make equal pay claims.

The role of trade unions

Where there are fights over equal pay, there are victories. The trade unions must be central to that. The problem is that all too often in recent years trade unions have failed to give a lead over the more general question of pay. Waiting for a Labour government is not sufficient to seize the current moment of anger over unequal pay.

The fight against the public sector pay cap is crucial — not least because it brings pay up elsewhere too, and limits the “race to the bottom” that can otherwise prevail. That means women workers must lead the way.

But it is not just in the public sector where the fight must continue. Nearly 60 percent of those on zero-hours contracts are women. The struggle to combat the increasing casualisation of work, and the low pay that goes with it, is an important battleground in the fight for real equality.

The Equal Pay Act, now 48 years old, does not take account of these changes in employment and how they can be used as loopholes to get round equal pay.

The BBC case also highlights the importance of a wider struggle for transparency and an end to privatisation and deregulation across every sector.

Equal pay claims have been made much harder by outsourcing. A woman may work alongside a man who is paid more, in what could be considered comparable work, but if the man happens to be employed by a different company because of outsourcing then they can’t be cited as a comparator in a claim.

The unions must put themselves at the forefront of a battle over these wider issues, which will also facilitate the fight for equal pay.

Political challenge

Challenging out and out discrimination is political. #MeToo has highlighted the issue of workplace harassment — not just limited to the entertainment industry. Women on insecure contracts and those in traditionally female dominated industries are also more likely to be harassed. Their strength is in taking on both those fights.

The heightened awareness of issues around equality and sexism creates a climate in which real change is possible — because everything is on the agenda. Socialists, trade unionists and everyone who wants to see that kind of change must shout from the rooftops about the question of pay. This is a moment to demand reforms.

The fight for equal pay is not separate from the broader struggle for a society that puts people ahead of profit. Tory attacks on the welfare state and the drive of privatisation have had a detrimental effect on women. The “motherhood pay gap” could be addressed by the proper provision of childcare and social care services to ease the burden on women at home.

An incoming Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn could address some of these problems. The Labour Party manifesto 2017 says little specific on equal pay, but it certainly makes some noises in the right direction. It commits to giving equalities reps in the workplace statutory rights, so they have time to deal effectively with cases that arise. It also pledges to reinstate the public sector equality duties and to seek to extend them to the private sector.

A Labour government could alter equal pay law in women’s favour by, for example, forcing employers to advertise salaries and making it illegal to be opaque about pay and by legally obliging employers to publish salaries for every grade/job. It could also take up the wider question of pay — and the huge gulf between the highest and lowest salaries.

But legislation is not enough — as should be clear from the past 48 years. The fights against women’s oppression, low pay and exploitation need to be transformative in order to create a society where people are not measured by how much they earn. What does it say about capitalist society that caring for others is regarded with contempt?

The fight for a society which values human beings over profits would also transform the way in which so called women’s work is treated.