From top jobs to the shop floor, women lose out

'The reality is that in Britain, women still make up only 3 per cent of company directors, and a majority of the low-paid'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The flames of class antagonism are roaring again. And this time, even the right-wing tabloids are in on the act. A survey just published, which showed that top executives' pay is rising by 16 per cent a year, compared to about 4 per cent for other workers, has kick-started the kind of language of which Karl Marx would have been proud. Isn't it wild to see the tabloids pressing a Labour government to curb the wealth of big bosses? "Stop dithering on fat-cat pay!" the Daily Mail stoutly instructed Trade Secretary Stephen Byers.

The flames of class antagonism are roaring again. And this time, even the right-wing tabloids are in on the act. A survey just published, which showed that top executives' pay is rising by 16 per cent a year, compared to about 4 per cent for other workers, has kick-started the kind of language of which Karl Marx would have been proud. Isn't it wild to see the tabloids pressing a Labour government to curb the wealth of big bosses? "Stop dithering on fat-cat pay!" the Daily Mail stoutly instructed Trade Secretary Stephen Byers.

These commentators are right to try to press the Government into action by urging greater company democracy in setting remuneration for directors. You don't have to be a paid- up member of the Socialist Workers' Party to wonder how these bosses get away with patting one another on the back and slipping a few million into each others' pockets, and then putting on a sombre face to tell their employees that there isn't a lot left over for their wage increases.

This debate tends to arise every year, directed at just a few, particularly visible beneficiaries of our unequal society. Who can forget Cedric the Pig, taken to the British Gas AGM after privatisation to highlight complaints about the pay packet of its chief executive, Cedric Brown. But for many people, there isn't really much urgency in trying to bring down the rewards of the few from the mind-bogglingly vast to the very, very big indeed. No, for many workers, the most pressing struggle over pay lies in trying to bring their own rewards up from the scandalously low to the just about adequate.

The longest-running strike in Britain at the moment is taking place in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, at a picture-framing factory called Foframe. Yesterday was a sunny, windy day in Huntingdon, and so the dozen workers on the picket line were feeling reasonably optimistic. "We have our good days and our bad days," Doreen Smith, who has been out on the picket for the 16 weeks of the strike, told me. Strikes now often seem to belong to the industrial past - they hardly seem to fit in with our glossy new economy and all the hype about flexible working and portfolio careers. But what would you do if you'd been working for the same company for 18 years, as Doreen Smith has, and were still earning just £4.29 an hour?

For Doreen Smith and her colleagues, there's no talk of a 16 per cent pay rise. Their boss, the entrepreneur Benjamin Perl, didn't offer them any pay rise at all this year. Since the strike began, he has offered them 3.5 per cent for this year, but they would like the same next year, too, and he won't guarantee that. Since Doreen can't actually get by on £160 a week, which is all that her pay packet comes to after a full week's work, she works in the evenings as well, cleaning offices for £4.50 an hour. All together, she has been working a 14-hour day every weekday for the last 12 years in order to keep herself out of debt and her head above water.

Money for luxuries has never been available to Doreen Smith; she has been out of Britain just once in her life, to visit a sister in France. How does she feel when she hears about the lifestyles of people who earn more than £1m a year? "You just feel rather bitter, don't you," she says in a resigned voice. "People laugh when they hear how much I earn."

For workers like these, the presence of a Labour government for three years has made no difference at all. In fact, the establishment of a minimum wage at the level of £3.70 an hour has, if anything, increased their problems. "He plays on that," Doreen Smith says, referring to Perl. "He says, 'I pay more than the minimum wage'. When that's laid down as an acceptable minimum, what can you do? But would any boss or politician be prepared to live on that? Would he? We asked him that, and he said, 'I couldn't live on it'. But we're expected to."

It may be good to hear voices raised in the media to demand a bit of realism for the highest paid in the nation's boardrooms, but when are they raised to demand fair pay for the lowest paid? Vast pay inequalities are unacceptable not just because some people earn enough to buy a tropical island, but because others don't earn enough to go on holiday.

What is telling, apart from the pure scale of the pay inequalities that exist in Britain, is how intimately these inequalities are still bound up with the old boundaries of class and race and gender. Yes, gender. No doubt recently you have looked at those pictures of young female students opening their exam results. It's hard not to believe the hype that went along with them, and to get excited about the idea that the future really is female, that young women are forging a new world stuffed full of glossy high-achievers.

But when you look at the inequalities in the outside world, it shows that a bit of a reality check might be in order. In that survey of top executives' pay, you could see that 110 executives in the study earned more than £1m last year. But where are all the women? There are none in the top 20. But here's Marjorie Scardino in the top 30, and one other woman joins her in the top 100. Two out of a 100 - are you satisfied, girls?

On the other hand, what is the gender balance on the picket line at Foframe in Huntingdon? Eighty per cent of the workforce in the factory is female. These aren't just isolated examples, this is the reality of the inequality that still exists in Britain, where women still make up only 3 per cent of company directors, and a majority of the low-paid. Even growing educational success isn't necessarily going to answer that imbalance. After all, another rather telling survey to pop out of the woodwork last week showed that more than half of personal assistants have better qualifications than their bosses.

The future could be more equitable for women, if the will was there. But although commentators from all political backgrounds seem keen to curb the grossest violations of our sense of fairness, and will join in keen outrage at the sight of a few men whose remuneration way outruns their talent, the larger picture of a country where women are systematically denied a fair chance at work is more or less accepted.

Again, three years of a Labour government doesn't seem to be doing much to change that. To gain the image of being family-friendly, this Government has pursued a policy of extending rights for working women to take paid maternity leave. Yet at the same time it has only given men the most minimal rights to unpaid paternity leave. Yesterday, a report published by the Industrial Society pointed out the inevitable consequences of such policies. "Employers discriminate against women, with good reason. Women are riskier appointments than men, because of the chance that they will have children."

Harriet Harman, the longtime champion of the rights of working women, has now begun to warn the Government that employers must be helped to deal with the consequences of the gap between male and female rights at work. In a memo to Stephen Byers, she suggested that the Government should pay a "baby bounty" to any employer taking a full-time employee back on a part-time basis after she's been away on maternity leave.

But if we are serious about tackling inequality, more thoroughgoing reform will be needed. All the rights that women now enjoy at work must be extended to men, if these "rights" are not, in fact, going to become a ghetto, forcing women to remain in a second-class position in the workplace.

That means giving rights to paid parental leave and part-time work to fathers on the same terms as mothers. This, together with a real commitment to raising the minimum wage to spring women out of the trap of low-paid work, would at last set our workplaces on the long road to equality.

n.walter@btinternet.com

Comments