Striking cleaners from the union United Voices of the World stage a picket protest outside the Ministry of Justice Headquarters in London in August 2018.
Initiatives to close the gender pay gap have so far focused heavily on highly-paid employment, such as getting more women CEOs and women into boardrooms. This approach has been deemed as ineffective, as it addresses a relatively small number of women who are also highly educated, white, and often already economically privileged, consequently neglecting intersecting issues including race, citizenship, and class that also contribute to pay inequality. It also leaves behind women with fewer skills and low levels of English, particularly those working in low-paid domestic work as cleaners, caterers and carers or who are unemployed.
Despite the lack of government attention, women have been organising as workers and activists for a long time. Recently, the Justice for Cleaners movement was started at SOAS by a group of cleaners and has now spread across several UK university institutions. Cleaners, who are majority migrant women, are indirectly employed by institutions through outsourcing companies who do not respect workers or their rights. This has encouraged cleaning staff to demand that universities employ them directly and provide better pay and employment rights, including sick pay, living wage, and equality with other university staff. Universities, including SOAS and the London School of Economics, have responded to years of protesting and demonstrations to bring cleaning staff back in-house and pay them the living wage. This has inspired a larger movement of cleaning and facilities workers campaigning for their rights, including a large protest in August 2018 of Ministry of Justice and Kensington and Chelsea Council cleaners.
There are also small yet positive steps being taken by the government, which recently announced that it will focus on supporting women in low-paid jobs and assisting 1.8 million women who are currently economically inactive, which is eight times higher than the amount of men out of work. £600,000 is being promised to be set aside to help women who have experienced homelessness, domestic abuse, and poor mental health, and £100,000 to provide women with English language skills. Although this investment is insufficient, it is a promising start to changing attitudes towards reducing the pay gap for not just those at the top but for all irrespective of gender, race, or class.
However, it is important to remember that women who are unemployed or in low-paid work will not see any radical change from these new initiatives alone. The situation of these women arises from the widespread issue of outsourcing domestic work in order to reduce costs and corporate responsibility and, more widely, the structural inequalities embedded in all areas of public policy. For example, hostile immigration policies act as barriers to migrants accessing paid employment opportunities and brand individuals as illegal and therefore unable to work. Also, government cuts to domestic violence support and mental health services further marginalise vulnerable women and make them more likely to remain unemployed.
At JAN Trust we stand with all workers who are campaigning for their rights and to close the pay gap and believe that the government needs to assess all areas of its policy to ensure that all workers receive equal rights and respect. Many of the wonderful women who we support are from migrant backgrounds and work as cleaners and carers. We offer English classes and courses in order for our beneficiaries to gain practical skills that are useful for employment. To find out more about our classes and services visit www.jantrust.org.]
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