I shared some thoughts this afternoon at the Woemn for independence AGM on women and the living wage. It went something like this:
The living wage is a morale demand if we are to achieve independence for women. Policy makers, legislators, trade union achievements for public sector workers are fantastic, but only a tip of the iceberg. That 64% of low paid workers in Scotland are women and 40% of all low paid workers are women working part time suggests an endemic problem in how our society values women’s work.
The demand for real change in the value of women’s work must be made by women driving from the bottom up.
Low paid, unorganised, part time women workers predominate in the care sector, and also in hospitality, retail. These women works don’t necessarily access polite lobbies, read policy briefings, fact sheets or Twitter feeds and they don’t need us to tell them how bad their pay is or how poor their working conditions are.
We can take inspiration from the U.S. SEIU fast food rights campaign – not just about a living wage but 15 dollars and a union – because part of the problem of endemic low pay is terrible working conditions and the lack of a workers voice. As in the US, we too have big conglomerates and companies – care sector giants, cleaning and catering contractors, coffee chain franchises, hotel chains and others that continue to employ workers on minimum wage, zero hours contracts and in some cases verging on illegal terms and conditions.
Traditional campaigning is to leaflet workers to tell them how bad their lot is, and to picket customers on how unethical a business is, has a place – but only if we bring those women workers with us, and they have ownership of the damages. No one wants to be talked down to by well meaning but slightly superior campaigniners. Low paid women workers know they are low paid, know their employers are treating them badly. They need a voice and they need to come together to win the change.
If we genuinely want to empower women to demand a living wage then we need to be a bit more sophisticated in how we approach them.
For many women, the lack of living wage might not seem the their main problem. It could be lack of breaks, managing childcare around shifts, a lecherous manager or poor public transport. We need to provide s safe space, let these women speak and help them build their own independence.
So how do we find these women? Well we already know them. They are are sisters, mothers, daughters, neighbours, friends. We see them every day when we leave the house – they serve us in shops, cafes, clean our workplaces, care for our relatives, look after our children. They are us.
None of us can take this on alone. The STUC, the unions, the Scottish living wage campaign, Women for Indy, Labour women, Green women – women with blue polka dots – must come together to create the space to allow women to organise their own independence – a living wage and a union, a bus route, a value on the work women do.