Glasgow City Council has just lost a large case over the concept of equal pay for equal work – thousands of women have won a 12 year battle over the issue. The problem is that the issue itself doesn’t really make sense. For what is being argued is that work of equal value should be equally paid. But, in a market economy, what is the definition of work of equal value? That’s the problem that needs solving.
The background argument here is that traditionally female dominated jobs are paid rather less than traditionally male. This is true. There certainly was a time when a man getting married would see a substantial pay bump as the societal assumption was that he now had a family to provide for. We are rather past that sort of patriarchy these days. OK.
And yet those traditionally female jobs like cooking, cleaning and so on – no, don’t worry about why they are female dominated just accept that premise for the moment – do still pay less than, say, bin collection. One answer would be that this is that patriarchy conspiring to keep women down. Which is, roughly enough, the case that is being made.
Thousands of women council workers in Glasgow are set to receive payouts that unions estimate could reach more than £500m in total following the resolution of a 12-year equal pay battle. Last October more than 8,000 women employed in homecare, schools and nurseries, cleaning and catering services across the city took part in what was believed to be the biggest-ever equal pay strike in the UK. Glasgow city council and the equal pay claimant group, represented by Action4Equality Scotland, and the Unison, GMB and Unite unions, confirmed on Thursday that they had reached an agreement in principle to a package of payments to resolve the historic claims.
The dispute, which has been fought through the tribunals and courts for more than a decade and involves about 14,000 separate claims, stems from 2006, when a new job evaluation scheme was introduced by the then Labour-run council, with the aim of addressing gender pay inequality. Instead, say the women affected, it entrenched discrimination by paying female-dominated jobs such as catering and cleaning less than male-dominated jobs such as refuse collection because of a complex system that penalised people working split shifts and irregular hours.
That argument seems to have worked – that it was unfair discrimination and it should be both stopped and compensated for.
However, there’s another reading of this possible. Which is, well, how do we define work of equal value? The work of a plumber is worth more than that of a junior solicitor – they get paid more after all. The work of a waiter is worth less than that of an MP, they do get paid less. Why isn’t the work of a cook worth less than a binman? No, not because of any gender bias, but because of the job itself?
That is, in a market economy, we’ve already got a measure of what a job is worth. How much do we have to pay enough people of the required skill and effort level to come do the job? What other estimation of the value of a job is there in a market economy?
Or as we can and should put it. In a market economy jobs of equal value would already be receiving the same pay. For that’s the definition of equal value, the only logical one we’ve got. If they’re not gaining the same pay then they’re not of equal value and thus what’s this agreement all about?