Pay women fairly to put an end to poverty

Let's not get prim about the bickering rivalry between our Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. It may appear to distract from more important matters, but there was never any chance of Labour's leaders dealing with those anyway. And there has been a serendipitous outcome to the arduous wooing of the party faithful by these two alpha males. As a result of their jostling to be the driving force behind the delivery of a booming and prosperous Britain in a historic third Labour term of government, we are now knee-deep in commitments to end poverty and inequality. If only half their ambitions for the overworked and underpaid are realised, Britain will, within the working lives of most of us, become an egalitarian utopia.

From Gordon Brown, we were promised better parental leave, the right for parents to request flexible working hours, and a commission on the gender pay gap "because we have not yet done enough and we must do more". From Tony Blair, we were told to expect "a fair deal for all at work", which would include "a rising minimum wage . . . four weeks' paid holidays from now on, plus eight bank holidays". Both speeches made specific reference to equal pay.

Predictably, such bread-and-butter promises didn't make the headlines, but Brown and Blair were right to place a priority on closing the unacceptable gap between men's and women's pay at all income levels - and not just because 52 per cent of voters are women. For, without a clear commitment to correcting the egregious gender imbalance in take-home pay, the fight against poverty will never be won. It is women who fill the ranks of the low-paid workers in vital service sectors ("the hands of others", in Gordon Brown's somewhat sentimental eulogy to the low-paid); it is women who are the breadwinners in the vast majority of Tony Blair's "millions of hard-working low-paid families" and to whom he promised not just "the respect they deserve, but the guarantee of a decent income".

None of these lofty ambitions can be achieved without a concentrated effort to resolve the intractable problem of why women, more than 30 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force, still earn on average 20 per cent less than men. For the millions of women whose family commitments require them to work part-time, the gender pay gap is even wider. The average part-time female worker receives an hourly rate 40 per cent lower than that of a full-time male worker, a persistent discrepancy that, according to the Fawcett Society, cannot be explained by the different kinds of work undertaken by men and women. Nor is it inevitable, says the society, given that other countries have moved far closer to parity.

Inequality between men's and women's pay is evident at all levels. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the salary gap between men and women is 25 per cent, an average monthly loss to (or robbery from) women of £559; for weekly paid women, the loss is £129 a week.

But it is the huge numbers of women working for poverty wages that Labour must urgently address. More than 43 per cent of working women earn less than £5 an hour; half of all women in full-time jobs and an astonishing 80 per cent of part-timers fall below the Council of Europe's decency threshold of £6.31 (or 68 per cent of average earnings).

How can the Equal Pay Act so signally have failed to secure justice for so many women? The problem is that, as the law now stands, a successful claim for equal pay requires a canteen worker, say, or an office cleaner, to find a man in the same organisation doing similar work to use as a comparator (unlike in race discrimination cases, for example, where a "hypothetical comparator" can be used). This flaw in the legislation renders it useless to women, who are often obliged by circumstance to work in female-dominated (and lower-paid) sectors such as cleaning, caring, catering or supermarkets, because they offer part-time work or full-time jobs at hours that fit around childcare needs.

A government committed to "shared national purpose" or an "opportunity society" or "progressive consensus" (the various Labour buzzwords of the moment) has to deal with this gaping inequality, first because it merits attention in its own right, but also because a major advance in ending child poverty would be to solve the problem of low-paid mothers.

The way to do that is clear enough. To begin with, as pledged, the minimum wage must be raised to at least the Council of Europe's decency threshold. This alone would lift 6.5 million women out of poverty, according to the Fawcett Society, and relieve taxpayers of the burden of subsidising bad employers to pay scandalously low wages. Next, the Equal Pay Act must be amended to reflect the reality of the different working lives of men and women. The Fawcett Society believes it should be made easier for women to take cases to tribunals and for applicants to make comparisons across workplaces. There is little point in championing flexible working (as both Blair and Brown have done) unless it is backed by a legal framework to protect the pay of those who opt for family-friendly working hours. Finally, employers in both public and private sectors must be required to conduct regular pay audits and introduce mechanisms to channel to women the money that is rightly theirs.

Systemic, ingrained inequality has no place in the Britain that, according to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, will be delivered by a third Labour term. Inequality is an affront, even to women with the good fortune to be well paid. But it also remains the single most important factor in perpetuating poverty in one of Europe's richest economies.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word