Never mind Essex Man - what about Supermarket Worker and Care Worker Woman?
50 years on from the Dagenham women’s strike, have working class women achieved equality?
Our Borough Barking and Dagenham is rightly celebrating the one hundred years since some women got the vote. It is 50 years since the start of the Dagenham women machinists’ strike which resulted, eventually, in the Equal Pay act. Our borough has a proud history. Under Councillor Sade Bright we celebrate all that is great for women with Women’s Empowerment Month in March, and the Leader of the Council Darren Rodwell is a notable advocate of women’s rights, and encourager of increasing woman’s participation and entry into political life.
This year all the female MPs got together and marked the 100 years - rightly so and women got widespread media coverage of their struggles to achieve a vote. It was a proud day for women.
What happened the very next day? Female workers launched an action against Tesco for not paying women workers the same as the male workers at their company. Jess Phillips MP when interviewed on Channel 4 said whenever contemplating policy issues, she consciously thinks of a worker at ASDA and thinks, what would that woman think of the issues we face? This is a commendable approach. However, my challenge to Jess Phillips and all MPs is - why isn’t anyone from ASDA, Tesco, call centers or care workers present as an MP in the House of Commons?
Mary Turner very sadly passed away last Year and was the President of the GMB. It is not well known that Mary was once a dinner lady. Do we still have pathways and social mobility which would permit the journey from school kitchen to the halls of power? In truth I think the Trade Union movement is the only chance. Barking and Dagenham has a great history of working women making the difference. But it has to be acknowledged that there aren’t enough female elected Councillors, and I feel there is still a sharp divide which isn’t inclusive of working class women.
I recently spoke to a female care worker and asked what she thought of Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of paying care workers a ten-pound living wage. This was brought up in a discussion of the workers undertaking a sixty and seventy-hour week. The careworker said it was good, but it is also their status and respect for their role that is lacking. Many in her own words “look at us as bum wipers and the job is so much more.” Increasing women’s salaries is a start but not enough. Careers dominated by women such as social care workers are not held in the same parity of esteem as more traditional “men’s jobs.” This is at the very heart of the action taken against Tesco.
Many women have children and often take paid work to fit in with the caring of the family, as it’s still the case women are usually the main carers of children and elderly parents. In the world of ASDA, Tesco and care homes the Employers take full advantage of this fact. We seem to be saying children, the elderly and the disabled are treasured, but then allow their carers, e.g. nursery workers or care workers to be paid shockingly low wages and contract conditions. Employers, if allowed, will not give secure conditions and fair pay. These, we hoped, had been won and fought for by our previous generations of women and men – hard fought for.
What of men then? I think sometimes Feminism misses the contribution men can make to women’s empowerment. I would not be able to achieve what I do without the support of my partner, who is male. Many of the people who support my political career are men. But many of our struggles economically are joint and I don’t think we should allow the elite to pitch one group against another. Language plays a part and should be challenged such as, “women of a certain age”, “yummy mummy” “Feminista” – I could go on! The challenge needs to be why such categorizing of women? No one speaks of “men of a certain age.” Both would be wrong but objections from women are greeted with the roll of eyes and muttering of feminist women!
Recently at Film and award ceremonies, in the light of repeated sexual harassment scandals, actresses donned black evening gowns to show admirable solidarity with their fellow actresses. But would the same level of interest be shown by society if it were female carers or supermarket workers? I think not. Does the same media interest exist for of women suffering on public transport regarding unwanted advances? Is the media and therefore public attention drawn to the struggles of working class women who are frequently underpaid, undervalued and also experience harassment? The narrative is chosen by the media, and in my opinion, can be a “dumbing down” of debate. Let’s talk about what dress an actress arrives in on the red carpet or that this year women have chosen to dress in black. I am not an entertainment killjoy but I am saying there is a vacuum that isn’t filled. Where is the same level of coverage for the woman in Iran who has been imprisoned for taking off her Hijab and can’t afford bail, or the young girls being horrifically and systematically attacked in India? Without such coverage it feeds the myth that women have achieved equality. This is still sadly a myth.
All women short lists until Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival have been filled to a large degree with middle class women. We need those women but we also need the experience of Tesco, ASDA and care worker woman. Unite the Union has admirably undertaken this work with their future candidates’ scheme. We need schemes like that needs to be expanded.
What of non-unionized workforces like my care worker friend? The way forward is community politics. It would start in the MP’s office. As Office manager for Jon Cruddas MP, this is our approach - local people leafletting their roads for the MP or Councillor. Real conversation and engagement with issues like low pay and conditions, carer stress and help with care packages and employment rights. Women read and engage with what’s going on in their community. Women can help in Campaigns and see what a difference real politics make to real communities. Dialogue opens and then engagement in the political process takes place. Community politics engages communities who have hitherto felt “left behind” by the Westminster elite. Caroline Badley brought this model to Dagenham and Rainham. What is interesting for me is most of the men and women who were introduced to politics in this way join the Labour Party.
If we continue in this way Tesco, ASDA and carer women will be able to join their middle class counterparts in the Houses of Parliament and in our Town Halls. Then much needed change will follow.
Margaret Mullane is a Labour Councillor for Village Ward, Dagenham