Is it time for a women's trade union?

I don’t see or hear a continuing, noisy fight coming from unions to pay a fair wage to cleaners, child care workers, retail workers and teaching assistants.

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As we approach International Workers’ Day, I was reminded of an interview I recently gave to a journalist about our report on the challenges facing young women who struggle to find apprenticeships and employment which offer a viable income and the flexibility they may need to meet other responsibilities. “Isn’t that union business?”, he asked me. "Why aren’t the unions making more noise about this?" I was not sure what to say.

The President of the European Trade Union Confederation, an organisation representing 60 million Trade Union members, is a woman; the General Secretary of the TUC is a woman.  Progress indeed. The fight for working rights is being led by two admirable women who are challenging the old bastions of male-dominated institutions.

55 per cent of union members are women and female employees are more likely to be a member than their male colleagues. Statistics also suggest that wages of union members are on average more than those who are not.

All these facts surprised me when put against the continuing reality of women’s employment and particularly the challenges that are facing so many young women in the UK.

Life is not a walk in the park for many older women but at Young Women’s Trust, we hear from those under 30.  Within this group it is women who are more likely than men to be on low pay, to be on zero hours contracts, to be unable to work because the low wages do not cover the childcare costs, because transport and housing costs are so high they are highly anxious and often making the decision that work does not pay.  This is not a passing phase.  Women are more likely than men to remain stuck in low pay and face life long financial disadvantage. And yet I don’t hear many of the young women I meet talking about unions. 

This may well be because they don’t see that unions can make a difference for them.  And I would understand why they might think this. I don’t see or hear a continuing, noisy fight coming from unions to pay a fair wage to cleaners, child care workers, retail workers and teaching assistants.  All areas where women are over-represented.  I also don’t hear a loud challenge to the enduring reality that women’s work is of less value than men’s. 

To give just a couple of comparisons: The average pay for a child care/day care worker is £6.93 per hour. The average pay for a shop assistant is £6.67 per hour. The average wage for a construction worker is £10.21 per hour. A painter and decorator earns an average wage of £10.28 per hour. 

This is the 21st century.  How can it be justified that child care is of less value than the built environment?  Who is addressing the failed attempts, by various agencies, to move women into male-dominated sectors?

The Women’s Equality Party clearly were of the view that current political parties were failing to address women’s issues and established themselves to challenge policy across the political horizon.  I don’t know if the same strategy is necessary in trade unions or whether women’s interests can be represented effectively by a renewed commitment, re-organisation and re-focus of current union functioning and structure.  I hope at least we can have the debate.

Carole Easton is chief executive of Young Women’s Trust, which supports women aged 16-30 living on low or no pay.