Denmark was right to ban discrimination in hair salons

If you're trying to end gender discrimination, then end gender discrimination.

After being picked up by the Daily Mail, a Reuters story on a ruling by Denmark's Board of Equal Treatment has spread far and wide. Mia Shanley writes:

It ordered a salon advertising women's haircuts for 528 crowns ($94) and men's haircuts for 428 crowns - plus an extra fee for long hair - to pay 2,500 crowns ($450) to a woman who had filed a complaint.

Now, a trade organization for hairdressers has called the decision absurd, saying it will become a nightmare to set prices for customers and warning of "pricing chaos".

"It takes, quite simply, longer time with women," Connie Mikkelsen, chairwoman of the Danish organization for independent hairdressers and cosmeticians, said in a statement on Monday.

The story is being passed off as yet another example of loony Scandinavian gender politics, but I'm not so sure I agree.

The actual report (run through Google translate, it does relatively well with Danish) gives more detail on the story. The complainant is a woman with a short, boyish haircut, who was nonetheless told she would have to pay the price for a "woman's haircut" (over £10 more). She left without getting her hair cut, and complained to the Board of Equal Treatment.

In other words, a woman, who wanted to purchase an identical service to a man, was told that she had to pay a £10 surcharge for being a woman. Not for having long hair — which would take more time to cut, and be a justifiable expense — nor, she claims, for wanting a more complex cut — the salon claims she could have got a male price if she'd wanted clippers, but I, and the Board, find it hard to believe a salon offering a £50 men's haircut would refuse to use anything but clippers on a man — but simply for being female.

That seems a textbook example of gender discrimination. It could be easily avoided by offering, say, "women's style" and "men's style" haircuts, or haircuts for "long" and "short" hair. But instead — and I think the complainant hits the nail on the head when she argues that the price difference is based on the traditional pricing in the industry, rather than the pricing which best reflects the costs involved — it has opted to price based on gender.

Far from ludicrous over-stretching of gender equality laws, it sounds more like the very reason they were made. No wonder the salon lost, and was ordered to pay a little under £300 in compensation.

 

Photograph: untitled by . ally on flickr.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.