Thousands of people marched through Glasgow, Scotland this week in the largest equal pay strike the UK has seen since the seventies.
Around 8,000 city council workers – most of them women – walked out of jobs and picked up placards to demand equal pay for carers, cleaners, caterers and support workers.
The strike marked a culmination of a dispute that began more than a decade ago, in 2006, after a newly introduced pay scheme enforced existing inequalities within the system. Female–dominated roles within the council, such as cleaning and caring, were penalized through complicated methods of measuring a job’s value in ways that male-dominated roles, like gardening and refuse collection, were not.
Back in 2006, Glasgow City Council was run by the Labour Party. Over the ten years that followed, Labour reportedly spent £2.5 million on legal fees and staff costs so that they could challenge women who were claiming wage discrimination.
In 2017, The Scottish National Party (SNP) took control of the council, with a promise to “end Glasgow’s years of pay injustice”. However, in the months since, workers became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress and voted to take strike action, despite the council’s claims that industrial action was unnecessary as progress had not stalled.
How We Value Women’s Work
Amanda Green, a care worker, explained that the women taking part in the strike carry out some of the city’s “toughest and most valuable jobs.” “The value of these jobs,” she continued, “is just not recognised – that’s the problem Glasgow has.”
But it’s not just Glasgow. The view that work carried out by women holds lower economic value than work carried out by men is a global problem. Our perception of jobs that have traditionally been more female-dominated – cleaning, cooking, looking after children and the elderly – is tightly interwoven with cultural norms of a woman’s ‘natural’ role in families, communities and wider society.
Ensuring everyone else is fed, watered, warm, safe, educated and comfortable – these are things we continue to expect women to bear responsibility for, and do for free, in their personal lives. It’s therefore not hugely surprising that we don’t take it seriously when women carry out similar roles in a professional capacity.
And yet, despite being undervalued, under-acknowledged and underpaid, society would grind to a halt if women stopped doing this work professionally. “We’re the ones that make this city come alive in the morning: we get children fed, we get elderly vulnerable people up and out of their beds so that other people can go to work. We go into schools at 5AM to clean them so that children can get an education,” says Shona Thompson, an at-home carer.
This week, after years of being dismissed and diminished, women across Glasgow withdrew their labour for 48 hours and suddenly, as if by magic, there was a newfound mass-recognition of their worth. “Schools and home care disrupted by Glasgow equal pay strike,” said BBC News. “Thousands of women bring city ‘to standstill’,” announced the Independent. Women spoke of the immense guilt they were being made to feel, as though “because of the job we do…we don’t really have the right to strike.”
Gender, Class & Equal Pay
Equal pay is rarely far from UK headlines at the moment. The BBC came under intense scrutiny over pay inequalities at the end of 2017, and over the summer the pay gap among professional tennis players received widespread media attention. We learnt that female actors earn thousands and sometimes millions of dollars less than their male co-stars, and Ryanair’s pay gap report led to intensely infuriating debates about whether men are perhaps just naturally more suited to being pilots than women are.
The salaries in the stories at the forefront of the equal pay conversation have tended to share two common threads – a disparity linked to gender, yes, but also a multi-figured nature. The equal pay debate seems to interest us a little less, and make fewer headlines, when discrimination affects women whose annual salary falls below the national average.
And so Glasgow’s working women haven’t, up until now, received the coverage or the solidarity I think they deserve. As one Scottish journalist commented: “Compared with the rightfully extensive coverage of Birmingham’s refuse strikers or Hollywood’s abuse scandal, is it that they are too female to be a proper workers’ rights story, and too working class to be a proper feminist one?”
If this week’s strike has proven anything, it’s that the jobs most of us want neither to do nor to talk about are the ones holding our communities and cities together. It’s that equality and fairness are for everyone, regardless of hourly wage. It’s that equal pay is a very present issue facing women in Scotland today. It’s that if a job is so essential that a city will cease to function without it, we should pay the person doing it fairly.