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Why the Living Wage campaign works for women

Some 29 per cent of women earn less than the Living Wage compared with 18 per cent of male workers. It's time to change that, says shadow women's minister Kate Green.  

By kate green

We’re reaching the end of a lively and eventful Living Wage Week, and there’s rightly been considerable focus on the success in signing up many more employers. More than 2,000 businesses (including 28 in the FTSE 100) are now accredited, double the number we had last year.

It was good to welcome a number of small businesses who are Living Wage employers at an event here in parliament this week. From umbrella manufacturers to micro brewers, supermarkets to football clubs, firms of all sizes from across the country see the business benefits, as well as the gains for their employees, of paying the Living Wage.

But what’s also important to recognise this week is the disproportionate benefits of paying the Living Wage for women workers. The prevalence of low pay among women means that increases in the Living Wage – as with the introduction of the national minimum wage by Labour in 1998 – have a disproportionate effect on women’s pay. But there’s a long way to go. Some 29 per cent of women earn less than the Living Wage compared with 18 per cent of male workers. Part-time workers, typically women, are three times more likely to be paid below the Living Wage as fulltime workers, according to KPMG. In certain sectors (catering, caring, cleaning, retail – typically jobs done by women), low pay is the norm.

This week, I had the privilege of meeting some exceptional women who work as school catering assistants in Camden, and who have recently won a campaign to be paid the Living Wage. They reminded me of the gendered nature of low pay, and the difference that the Living Wage will make to them – one calculates she’ll earn around £250 more per month. But they taught me something more, for their story has a wider importance, well beyond their own workplace. Faced with the injustice of low pay, these women show how coming together to organise and take matters into their own hands was key to achieving change.

One of the Camden women, Christina, told me their story. They had discovered that the contract between Camden council and the firm that employed them, Caterlink, meant they were paid just £6.60 an hour, while Caterlink paid the then London Living Wage of £9.15 to their staff in Islington, right next door. Not surprisingly, they didn’t think that was fair. Previously un-unionised – some had never even heard of trade unions, others didn’t know how or were reluctant to join – one woman went off to the library to read up on workplace rights, and ended up joining Unison. Gradually more and more women came on board. Unison membership soared from 25 to over 100 as a result of painstaking one to one conversations between woman workers to persuade their colleagues to get involved.

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With a substantial number of members signed up, union negotiations with the employer got underway. But at the same time, the women found themselves at the heart of a media campaign. The local paper, the Camden New Journal, rallied to their cause, even sending a reporter to doorstep the company chair at his home. Sensing they were winning the battle for public opinion, the women organised a demonstration outside Camden town hall. They banged their saucepans and told their stories. And shortly before the general election, the council and Caterlink agreed to pay them the living wage.

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The difference this will make to these women is significant. Another of the women, Emi, told me: “We can save a bit for things for the children. We’re going on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday before.” Caterlink has benefited too: last summer they had 40 vacancies to fill, this year there were just two. Staff turnover has plummeted.

But what this story also shows is something bigger: the power women have when they come together and organise. They were anxious to tell me their success was a result of everyone – the union, the company, the council, the press, as well as their own efforts – coming together to find a solution. But the truth is that this was their campaign, started, owned and directed by them. They worked together and supported one another, and that’s what gave them the courage and the confidence to fight for fair pay – and win.

Women have always done their politics like this. We know it’s always important to learn from each other, spread good practice, collaborate, mobilise more women to be campaigners on their own behalf, and support one another in the fight for equality and justice. That’s why I’ve asked the Camden women to help me identify the wider policy solutions that could do more to secure women’s rights at work.

But, as I salute the Camden women, I also know there are many more remarkable women with a story to tell. We have many battles still to win in the cause of gender equality, and that’s why I’m inviting every woman who wants to see an end to low pay, who insists on fair pay for women and men, who’s determined to see justice for herself, her sisters, and her daughters, to share their experiences, successes and ideas with me.

As a spokesperson for the Living Wage Foundation said in parliament this week, the story of the Living Wage is the story of a movement. And the Camden women have reminded us that, as women, we are at its heart.