Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Equal Pay for Equal Work

Recently I've found two of my long standing kneejerk reactions in conflict with one another.

Immovable Truth #1: Workers who are unfailry treated can and should strike and should have the support of the public. As a child of the north and the eighties, it would be difficult fo strikes not to be an emotive subject for me. As such, when the bin men in Leeds went on strike, my reaction was 'right on, go for it!' - as weirdly70s as that may have sounded.

Immovable Truth #2: Men and women should be paid equally for equal work. Not just the same job, but EQUAL work, so that could be two different jobs that are equally as challenging as each other, but one might be a job more dominated by women, e.g. care work, while another might be something we associate with men, e.g refuse collection, but they should still get the same pay. Especially if both jobs are paid by the same agency, e.g. Leeds city council.

I'm pretty good on non-sexist language, but even I struggle with saying refuse collector, or 'bin-person', as much as I struggle with 'dinner person' or 'lunch supervisor'. It's dinnerlady, and part of my soul rebels, even when I'm talking about a MALE dinner...man. I have no problem with a guy serving fishfingers and chips* in the school cafeteria, or a lady emptying my wheelie bin of a Tuedsay, in fact I rejoice on the rare occasions I see these things, but the societal sexism around certain jobs runs deep, language-deep. As a result, not many women are binmen. I've NEVER seen one, in fact. The odd dinnerbloke, and male care assistant, yes. Female bus drivers, rare, but getting more common. Binladies? Nope. Nada. And funnily enough, which sector of Leeds city council employees turn out to be getting paid loads more than their equivalents? Binmen. Funny that.It's not the guys' fault. Rubbish collection is a strenuous but well paid job. competiton for jobs is high and these guys have worked hard to get them, and bought houses and cars in good faith that their paycheques weren't going to suddenly get slashed. It's shitty to suddenly pull the rug out from under them like this. Care assistants, on the other hand, are incredibly poorly paid, and I can tell you first hand that anyone claiming that helping a stroke victim with senile dementia get up, get washed and dressed, go to the toilet, and eat breakfast while reassuring them that everything's OK despite the fact that they've forgotten that their spouse died 20 years ago and aren't really sure who you are even though you've done the same thing every day for a year takes LESS skill, strength and sensitivity than collecting wheelie bins and emptying them into the back of a lorry can only be being deliberately obtuse.

But this is the council we're talking about.

Equal pay legislation has been around for decades now and yet women take home considerably less than men. Not because, as has been suggested by some pundits, they 'choose lower paid jobs' but because they are socialised towards certain skillsets, and those areas are devalued simply BECAUSE they are 'women's jobs' Cooking, cleaning, care of children and vulnerable adults: none of these are seen as occupations worthy of a 'real man'. Recent UK legislation demands transparency from councils in what they pay jobs of equivalent skill, and now decades of disparity in 'masculine;' and 'feminine' jobs has come to light. Leeds is the tip of the iceberg. Bin strikes are planned in Brighton and may go nationwide as councils are forced to even up the pay. This has to happen, but by making the bin men take the brunt of the changes in savage cuts, the council risks further polarising male and female workers by creating bad feeling between them, and then claiming that the much needed payrises in 'women's jobs' are impossible because of the stubbornness of the bin workers.

I don't know what the answer is, but I think there's a lesson here.

Much like the recent MP's who've been forced to pay back extravagant put previously legal expense claims, binmen have enjoyed an unfair advantage. It's not their fault and they did nothing legally wrong, and now they are losing that advantage, which really stings.
So if you're offered a job with benefits that just... seem too good to be true, proceed with caution, because at any moment it could get whisked away.

*Um, I mean sustainably sourced grilled fish slices and fat free potato wedges, which in NO WAY resemble the junkfood they replaced. Thanks, Healthy Schools Initiative!


  1. What is a Tuedsay? :)

    Interesting post, thanks!

  2. Well, since English has only three grammatical genders, and one does not want to refer to either biological gender as "it," we have quite a dilemma in moving beyond the traditional labels that include gender.