In TUC conference week much of the talk will revolve around low pay and the curse of zero hours contracts and rightly so. Since Day 1 of the ConDem government, employers have been positively encouraged to put the lid firmly on any pay increases and demand massive flexibility with their staff, to the point where workers are no longer employed directly but through agencies in many cases. Sacked on a whim, laid off on the spot for a week or two, scrambling for any extra hours the employer has to offer is now general. Even the Tories own manipulated figures on the economy are showing a skewed 'recovery' yet the lid remains firmly closed at the whisper of any increase in pay for the workers. Four years have passed with no pay rises, despite big bonuses for the bankers continuing, while austerity has virtually broken the backs of the poorest.
Those most bearing the brunt are women. Successive governments have urged and pushed women to the brink in a swift return to work after the birth of a child, economic forces have removed a woman's right of choice to work flexible hours, or take a few years to stay at home and care for her child should she wish, single mothers have been villified and not even a tax break given to couples, but a pernicious culling and freezing of child benefit at a time when it is needed more than ever.
We have ended up with a situation where nurseries have become daycare warehouses for babies under 2, while mum desperately tries to find work that will cover the bills, let alone provide a few luxuries like holidays. Its all very well if the woman is a high flyer and can afford nannies and au pair help but the majority of us cannot. On top of this, although in theory a woman can request flexible working hours to care for a disabled child or elderly relative, in practice employers do not want an employee who may have to leave work at a moments notice. Being female under this ConDem government has meant hardship on every front and none more so than on pay.
A recent survey in the north west by the TUC revealed 2 in 5 part time jobs in the UK pay less than the living wage. However in Pendle Lancs, 3 out of 5 women - 61.5% are paid below the living wage. There is a 34%part time gender pay gap! A toxic mix of zero hours or ridiculous low hours contracts like 4 or 7 hours a week only add to the problem. In an effort to combine caring with work, women will often take any low paid factory work or supermarket job to make ends meet. Pressure is being mounted by unions to see councils adopt the Living Wage and this is having some success. But lets get into the private sector companies and show them the benefits of both the Living Wage but also Living Hours and employing staff directly. It is definitely a case of going back to the future, but without stable employment on a Living Wage, women and all workers face a future of slave labour.
A new generation of young women are emerging from school having spent the last 4 years perhaps watching their own parents struggle on low pay. A new generation of women who think zero hours, low pay and no workplace rights is the 'norm'. We have to work fast to change that narrative. There will be many women who go onto careers, but there will be many who will shift between one low paid job to the other and this government have so far been successful at brainwashing people into thinking this is their lot in life. A zero hours low paid job where renting a house is beyond them. We cannot allow Cameron and co to have this kind of blanket power across the working class. We need to empower women and all young people through education in high schools that it is a basic human right that a Living Wage and Living Hours are theirs to demand from employers. When they feel too vulnerable to stand up to an employer as a member of a Trade Union they have the right to representation. Education is the key.
The concept of in work poverty is alarmingly, slowly being absorbed and accepted. When a woman returns home from work in a low paid, unskilled, zero hours job she often then has to turn to household chores, childrens activities/ homework and caring duties. Having the time and strength to campaign against in work poverty alludes her. That is why it is absolutely imperative we campaign within our unions and take to the streets in demonstrations to show society and employers and companies we are not prepared to accept low pay and less than the living wage and living hours. A Labour government post 2015 must also put an end to in work poverty and Ed Miliband has pledged to free us of the scourge of routine zero hours contracts.
A mandatory Living Wage would be the cherry on the cake Ed. Lets do it!