Ford machinist workers on strike in Dagenham, 1968. Photo: Dermot Feenan via flickr Ford machinist workers on strike in Dagenham, 1968. Photo: Dermot Feenan via flickr

That women workers’ pay in the UK continues to lag significantly behind that of men underlines the limits of legal change under capitalism, argues Susan Ram

This week marks an important anniversary: the half century of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which received its royal assent on May 29 of that year. The passage of the new law introduced the principle (if not the practice) of equal pay for men and women to British statute books, and by that token was a significant step forward. At the same time, the limitations of the Act were evident from the outset. Fifty years on, the sex pay gap, while less gaping and in-your-face than it was for women workers at Ford’s Dagenham plant who in 1968 took up the cudgels against it, remains doggedly in place.  

The film Made in Dagenham, which chronicles that struggle, provides a powerful introduction to the context in which the Act came into being. At the giant Ford plant on the fringes of East London, women performed the work of stitching seat covers and upholstery for the cars rolling off the assembly lines. Despite the skilled nature of their labour, the machinists were consigned to the lowest grade of pay, which they occupied alone; all male workers in the factory, including those in unskilled jobs, were on higher grades. For three weeks in the summer of 1968, the women struck work, demanding inclusion and equality of pay within the skilled C grade. They met Barbara Castle, a minister in the Labour government of Harold Wilson, and were eventually persuaded to accept a solution that fell short of equality (92% of the C grade paid to male workers).  

The readiness of the women to unite in industrial action had a galvanising effect on a movement already undergoing radicalisation. “The Ford strike sent a tremor of hope through the trade union movement,” wrote the socialist historian Sheila Rowbotham shortly afterwards. “Women who had fought hopelessly at TUC meetings for equal pay took heart again.” Following the strike, trade unionists set up a national joint action Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACWER), which in May 1969 organised an equal pay demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square. Elsewhere in the country other strikes by women workers were looming: for example, among garment workers in Leeds and night cleaners in London.

It was in this context that Barbara Castle, a savvy political operator, took it upon herself to steer through parliament what was presented as breakthrough legislation. In reality the new law was a fudge; it offered a definition of ‘equal pay’ that was extremely narrow, and left undisturbed the existing job segregation between men and women, thereby making direct comparison between different jobs impossible – and leaving women stuck on lower wages. And rather than enforce the new law with immediate effect, Castle gifted employers a five-year ‘preparatory’ period. By the time the Act came into operation, on December 29 1975, bosses had seized every opportunity to exploit loopholes, engage in creative ‘recategorisation’ and regrading of jobs, and generally water down its impact.

The delayed start of the 1970 Act, and the fact that (metaphorically speaking) it began life with multiple arms tied behind its back, provides part of the explanation for its inability to achieve its stated goal. In the engineering sector, employers continued to use grading as a means to evade equal pay, prompting a series of strike actions by women workers.

For 21 weeks across the summer and into the autumn of 1976, women assembly line workers at the American-owned Trico-Folberth wiper blades factory in Brentford, struck work for equal pay.  They had discovered that male co-workers who had recently joined them on the day shift following the company’s decision to end night working were receiving substantially higher pay — for doing identical work. In October, the women finally achieved their goal: common payment according to work results.

In this context of militancy, especially in the organised sector, some narrowing of the sex pay gap took place early on (according to the NEU’s website, “fulltime women’s average earnings compared to men’s rose by 5 per cent, from 72 per cent to 77 per cent, over a five-year period in the 1970s — the biggest ever increase in this ratio”), progress towards full equality has stalled. In 2019, the sex pay gap in Britain was the highest in the EU, with women earning on average 15.5% less than men.

Predictably, enforcement of even the diluted stipulations has proved patchy and feeble. While organised women workers have drawn on union support and resources when taking their claims to employment tribunals, women in non-unionised sectors and low-paid part-time jobs have often been in no position to take on unscrupulous employers. In 2013 (by which time the Equal Pay Act had been incorporated within the 2010 Equality Act), Cameron’s coalition government announced that workers taking employment tribunal cases against their employers on the grounds of sex or race discrimination would have to pay upfront fees of up to £1,200; it would take four years of union-backed legal challenge to remove this crippling constraint.

More recent legislation has made it compulsory for companies employing 250 or more employees to publish their ‘gender’ (sex) pay gap data every year. While doing nothing to force big employers (including charities and public sector concerns) into compliance with the law, this annual exposé has at least the merit of confirming what we already know: that the sex pay gap continues to thrive. Based on analysis of the figures filed in April 2019, The Independent reported that the gap had in fact widened at “nearly half” of the UK’s largest companies and public sector bodies over the previous year. Almost eight in 10 companies were still paying men more than women; more than a quarter were paying female employees up to 20 per cent less.

This intractable reality has much to tell us about the organisation of work under capitalism, a system which thrives on, and perpetuates, cleavages of every kind, from sex to ethnicity, from age to caste and religious faith. In the case of women, centuries of discrimination and subordination are at hand, ripe for exploitation by a profit-driven system. Gender stereotypes, expertly projected by advertising, mass media and the global pornography industry, reinforce the social expectations, prejudice and sexual harassment women confront on a regular basis. Despite their much increased participation in work outside the home over the past half century, women in Britain (and elsewhere) continue to lead lives circumscribed by sex-specific roles and ‘duties’: housework; care of children, the old and the sick; the (unpaid) provision of a host of subtle elements that sustain the reproduction of the labour force. In consequence, many women find themselves trapped in sectors of a segregated labour market that capitalism deems of low value and little worth.

Fifty years on, the Equal Pay Act reminds us of the thwarted hopes of the women who did so much to bring it into being. And it stands as a monument to the impossibility of achieving real equality between men and women under the straitjacket that is capitalism.      

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.