by Sally Lopez
Much criticism of last month’s Women and Work Commission’s report on the “gender pay and opportunities gap” has focused on its failure to recommend compulsory equal pay audits for employers. This is no surpise. As long ago as September, the Guardian reported that the commission’s chair, ex-T&G bureaucrat Margaret Prosser, “rules out the mandatory equal pay reviews called for by the unions”. Heaven forbid that companies should be forced to do anything, and the hand-picked list of Blairite business, local government and right-wing trade union hacks that produced the report were always unlikely to disagree.
The facts of unequal pay — thirty years since the Equal Pay Act, full-time female workers earn on average 17% less per hour than their male colleagues, while women working part-time receive 40% less — certainly demand drastic action. But though the concept of an overall “gender pay gap” is useful in agitational terms, it masks a number of distinct issues.
Only a small proportion of the gap results from women being openly paid less than men for the same job. Another aspect is discrimination against women who take time off to care for children. Yet another is the fact that women are concentrated in low-paid jobs in the five “c”s, the caring, cashier, clerical, cleaning and catering sectors.
These different aspects of pay discrimination impact in different ways on women of different classes. “Scandals” in which female stockbrokers and chief executives rake in less than their male peers for doing exactly the same thing are interesting for what they tell us about the grubby world of the corporate boardroom, but are not exactly among society’s greatest injustices. The burdens of childcare are rather different for someone with enough cash to afford a nanny while the vast majority are let down by the lack of decent, publicly-funded childcare.
What we need is not a better gender balance among low-paid workers, but for low pay to be abolished altogether.
The press and the bourgeois political elite prefer to concentrate on discrimination against wealthy “career women”. The Daily Telegraph has made great play of the fact that some women “in the financial sector” will earn £1 million less over their lifetimes than equivalent men - never mind that plenty of women (and men) will earn less than £1 million in total! The Tories, meanwhile, are atempting to use the issue to attract more middle-class and bourgeois women as candidates.
We need a militant trade union campaign against pay inequality, not only demanding compulsory equal pay audits but pushing up the wages of the lowest paid workers and demanding decent public funding for childcare and other services. Why not start with the demand for a living minimum wage?