Comment: Thank the Dagenham women for better pay

Carrie Mitchell. Picture: contributed
Carrie Mitchell. Picture: contributed
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THERE is a long way to go, but the momentum from the Ford workers’ strike is still being felt, writes Carrie Mitchell

Some 48 years ago today, 187 sewing machinists making seat covers for Ford cars got up and walked out of their workplace in a protest about equal pay and grading.

The women – whose story was immortalised in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham – were protesting about being placed on the union’s B grade list of unskilled workers when men who did the same work were placed in the semi-skilled C grade. That meant that the women were paid less than the men who were doing the same work. To add insult to injury, the women were also paid less than men who were on the same pay grade as they were but doing more menial tasks. At the time, this was fairly common practice.

The women also had the problem that not all the union representatives initially supported their strike. The group alleged that the union was not concerned about losing the women’s union dues, given the thousands of male workers who made up the majority of their membership.

The women were joined by another 195 Ford workers from another factory – Halewood Body and Assembly Plant – and, as Ford couldn’t sell cars without seats, their action stopped production of cars in the Dagenham factory. Although many of the women had spouses who worked at the factory and supported their action, they were still at the receiving end of some abuse from other male colleagues unable to work when production stopped.

The women found themselves at the centre of a huge amount of publicity – not all of it positive. One photographer got a picture of a partially unfurled banner which actually read “We want sex equality” but in the picture simply said “We want sex”. However, perhaps all publicity is good publicity, as when the news spread around the country about what was happening, more and more of the public began to support the women.

The three-week strike came to an end when the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, met with the women and took up their cause.

They were awarded a pay rise – but even then they returned to work being paid only 92 per cent of what the male machinists received. An inquiry took place into the apparently inequitable grading, but failed to find in favour of the women. They remained on a different grade to the male machinists until another strike, this time six weeks long, many years later in 1984.

Equal pay and conditions for women was already an issue in the 1960s as more and more women joined the workplace. However, the attention brought by the Ford workers’ action made it headline news and created momentum which then assisted Ms Castle’s efforts to get the Equal Pay Act 1970 onto the legislative books. When the legislation was debated in parliament the women were identified as playing a “significant part in the history of the struggle for equal pay”.

There is still a gender pay gap in the workplace today, in terms of the difference between men and women’s average salaries and reflects the concentration of women in lower-paid occupations and the fact they remain less likely to progress to senior levels.

Progress has been made, but the Government Equalities Office reported the gender pay gap as being 19.1 per cent in 2016, which equates to women earning 80p for every £1 earned by a man.

The draft Equality Act (Gender Pay Reporting Gap Information) Regulations are intended to come into force in October and include a requirement for employers in the private and voluntary sectors with 250 or more employees to publish the difference between the average salaries of their male and female staff. Information on bonuses will also require to be published.

Nearly half a century after the women of Dagenham took matters into their own hands, it is clear the momentum that they started is still being felt.

• Carrie Mitchell is a consultant with Morton Fraser