working in industry

Women over 50 are the first generation to have been protected by equal pay and sex discrimination laws, and the first to have rights to paid maternity leave. Yet after decades of hard work, many of women of my generation feel, to be frank, short changed.  The fact that this generation of women earns a fifth less than their male counterparts and less than any other age group of women should set alarm bells ringing.

Today the TUC launches a detailed report on the issues facing women over the age of 50 in the labour market.

The fact that this group of women are getting a raw deal is no secret. The Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women has done a great job in shining a spotlight on this issue and high profile women in the media and arts have spoken out bravely about the under-representation of older women on TV and in film.

It’s vital that the trade union movement speaks up on behalf of these women too. The typical trade union member today is more likely to be a woman than a man and trade union density amongst women is greatest amongst the 50-59 age group. These are our members and it falls upon us to listen to and speak up for this group of members whose voices all too often go unheard.

Thousands of women have fed into this TUC report. Women from all different walks of life, up and down the country, who had a story to tell about how they had been marginalised, underpaid, demoted, discriminated against, or, more often than not, how they had been stretched to breaking point by multiple caring responsibilities and a demanding job.

Although there are more women over 50 working than ever before, too many are trapped in low paid, part time job with no prospects, no training, and no way out. Women over the age of 50 have been hard hit by austerity. Redundancies, pay freezes, and increased contracting out of services were a common theme in the survey responses and case studies we received.

The burden of balancing caring responsibilities with work was a familiar refrain from the women we spoke to and surveyed. An aging population and cuts to health, social care and childcare services mean that many women, but particularly women over the age of 50, are constantly performing an impossible act of juggling care and paid work. For many, flexible working remains a pipe dream. Part time work is often the only option but that means a significant pay penalty. Most women over 50 in part time work earn less than £10,000 per year.

And let’s not beat around the bush: many of the issues that we’ve identified, from lack of training to low pay, boil down to plain old discrimination. Age and sex discrimination are threads running through this report which we cannot ignore.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Our report sets out the issues but it also proposes a solutions.

On pay, there is no one simple solution. But there are steps we can take in the right direction. Removing the pay freeze in the public sector would be a good starting point. The Government must also address the range of issues behind women’s low pay throughout the course of their working lives. This means ensuring a better supply of well paid, high quality part-time jobs, more genuinely flexible work available as a day one right, and free universal childcare. The living wage and national minimum wage are important but for us as trade unionists it is crucial that we keep on pushing for the expansion of collective bargaining and the exploration of different approaches to sectoral pay bargaining.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems faced by those with caring responsibilities. We need different solutions for different situations. Paid carers leave for those caring for friends or family with a mental health problem, illness or disability. Unpaid leave for grandparents much like the unpaid leave that parents can access until their child is 18. And a period of ‘adjustment leave’ for those dealing with new caring responsibilities.

Employers have an important role to play in all of this. We know that good employers ensure that all of their employees have access to training and development opportunities, rather than sidelining those workers who are perceived to be “winding down for retirement”. Good employers offer enhanced leave arrangements to employees with caring responsibilities and are open to discussions about different ways of working flexibly. Good employers also recognise the different health and safety concerns of different groups of workers and should offer training to managers to ensure that issues such as stress, mental health and the menopause are well understood and are sensitively handled.

Last but not least, we need to see fees for tribunal fees scrapped so that women facing discrimination in the workplace are not priced out of seeking justice.

As Melissa Benn rightly said in a recent article, “it should be older women tweeting up a storm or charging down Whitehall in furious protest”. Now is the time to make our voices heard.

Posted on February 27th, 2014 by Kay Carberry filed under: Blog, Work