By championing the voices of women we can encourage those suffering under austerity to resist, says Katy Clark
Despite the fact that women have always played a central role in the labour movement and indeed in the wider struggles of the left, our leadership remains predominantly male and the voices of women are still not heard as loudly as they should be.
Women have always been interested and active politically but usually our stories are written out of history.
Perhaps the most celebrated example of women in the labour movement is the “match girls’ strike.”
In 1888 the women workers at the Bryant and May factory in East London struck against low pay, awful working conditions and the firing of women who tried to speak out.
Through strikes, marches and protests, they secured safer working conditions and union recognition. The example of this strike sparked the growth of trade unions and the labour movement across Britain.
To use a more local example, in my own constituency, last year we marked the 100th anniversary of the Kilbirnie net workers’ strike of 1913.
At the time, work in the Kilbirnie thread mill was hard and exhausting, so in 1912 Kate McLean set up a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers in the town. Many joined the union.
In June 1913 they went on strike demanding improved pay and working conditions, with the Scottish Trade Union Congress raising money to support the strikers.
After a hard struggle and 22 weeks of dispute, the women workers succeeded in securing the non-victimisation of strikers as well as an agreement giving them secure pay and union recognition.
Another famous example of the struggle of the women workers is the campaign at Ford factory in Dagenham to end gender discrimination in wages, which led a Labour government to pass the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
These stories highlight how the progressive changes we have seen over the last century have come from the hard-fought struggles of ordinary women.
During my lifetime the position of women has improved in many ways, but we are still a long way from achieving gender equality.
European-wide austerity has hit women particularly hard. In the UK 65 per cent of people working in the public sector are women, meaning pay restraint and job cuts have affected them disproportionately.
Unison estimates that of the £14.9 billion of welfare cuts that are already being implemented 74 per cent of the money will come out of the pockets of women.
The introduction of employment tribunal fees has also reduced the ability of many women to seek redress if unfairly discriminated against in the workplace.
The TUC has found that in the first year since the fees were introduced there was an 80 per cent fall in the number of women pursuing sex discrimination claims.
Sadly, of course, this is not because the problem has disappeared but because women are increasingly unable to access justice at work.
In this context it is hardly surprising that 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap is still so big.
Women’s average full time pay is 15.7 per cent lower than that of men. This means, as is so often said, women workers will in effect be working for no pay from November 4 until New Year’s Day.
The situation is much worse for the large number of working women. Scottish women work
ing part-time earn 33 per cent less per hour than the men’s full-time hourly rate.
Worryingly the situation is getting worse rather than better, with the pay gap widening in 2013 for the first time for five years.
This is unacceptable and highlights the need for compulsory gender pay audits in private companies, so that any gender pay gap can be exposed and addressed.
Clearly, the need for equal and fair pay is as important and as pressing as ever, and the wider labour movement has a central role to play in delivering this.
There are clear examples showing what can be achieved. Earlier this year, Care UK workers, mainly women, in Doncaster organised a series of strikes in response to the newly privatised management’s attempts to cut their pay. After 90 days on strike they succeeded in securing a 2 per cent pay rise this year and next.
But of course these issues are international. Across the world women workers continue to mobilise for better pay and safer working conditions.
In Bangladesh the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) has been fighting for better pay and working conditions in the clothing manufacturing sector. It represents a workforce which is 85 per cent women.
The NGWF has successfully organised over 1,000 factory committees in different garment factories and played a leading role in the campaign to increase the minimum wage for Bangladeshi garment workers.
In 2010 it succeeded in getting an 80 per cent increase in the minimum wage.
Women play leading roles within the organisation and continue to campaign for a living wage and safe working conditions.
It is now over a century since the Kilbirnie net workers in my area went on strike, but there are strong parallels between the struggles they faced then and the issues which many women workers across the world deal with today.
The labour movement has a vital role to play in delivering gender equality.
We must celebrate the voices of women within our movement and spread awareness of these women’s stories and others which show that positive change can be achieved.
Katy Clark is Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran.