Several women (different reports have different figures ranging from 1,400 to 5,000) working for Birmingham council in the UK have won a pay discrimination case. The women work in jobs such as as care workers, caretakers, kitchen staff, and cleaners. The women are on the same grade as men working in different jobs, but whilst the men receive bonuses, the women do not. Some men working in traditionally female jobs such as those listed, have also been affected.
One of the issues, which has led to this situation is the council’s bonus pay scheme (discontinued in 2007), which awarded extremely high bonuses to certain traditionally male jobs. For example, the Times reports that refuse collectors have been paid up to £46,000 per year*, a traffic lights repair man was paid £81,940, and a road painter was paid £57,591 – all as a result of the council’s bonus pay system, which related exclusively to traditionally male jobs. (The figures come from a document used in the pay discrimination case.) It’s clearly unfair that women working on the same pay grade have been exempt from claiming bonuses paid to men.
One issue this case raises is obviously the different value placed on men and women’s labour. People tend to think that men should be paid more than women because their work is dirtier, harder, more physically demanding. This assumption leads to a disparity in the way that men and women are paid. For example, with male cleaners, who typically do certain sorts of cleaning, being paid more than female cleaners, who typically perform other sorts of tasks. The assumption, however, is false. Karen Messing’s excellent book, One Eyed Science discusses disparities in men’s and women’s occupational health. She found that traditionally female jobs can lead to just as much injury and disability as traditionally male jobs. But the injuries women tend to suffer are different, although no less debilitating. They tend to result from years of performing the same repetitive movements day in, day out, rather than injuries sustained as a result of a specific accident. People sometimes claim that men’s working environments are more unpleasant than women’s, and this is part of what justifies a disparity in pay. Again, this is false. Women may work in uncomfortably hot industrial kitchens or laundries, or in the case of care workers, deal with excrement on a daily basis.
A further issue is, of course, whether any council workers should have been paid such high bonuses. The general feeling is that they shouldn’t, because they are merely manual labourers. Many writers find it outrageous that manual labour should attract larger salaries than people working in so-called white collar jobs such as solicitors and teachers. There is some sense that teaching and legal work are more valuable than collecting refuse, and so more worthy of higher salaries. This, of course, rests on all sorts of class biases, and it’s not clear to me that they can be sustained. One might think that all jobs should attract the same level of salary, and that everyone should receive a good wage, with no-one being paid vast sums for their work.
The BBC report is here.
*The story about the amount paid by Birmingham council to refuse collectors surfaces fairly regularly in the local news.
Thanks to aerenchyma for bringing this to our attention.