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Expert Comment: Asda rediscovering women’s history

Supermarket Monday 27 October 2014

As Asda faces allegations of unequal pay for women, Lecturer in History Dr Sonja Tiernan, looks at the history of  the fight for equal pay.

Asda, the UK’s second largest retailer, is facing a mass legal challenge over equal pay for women workers. As many as 1,000 employees have already lodged official claims; this number is steadily growing with online submissions being accepted by legal representatives. Shop floor workers at Asda, who are in the main female, claim that they are paid considerably less than workers in the distribution warehouses, who are predominately male. The pay difference is as much as £4 per hour. Asda is owned by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which has been dogged by equal pay suits in recent years. In 2010 Wal-Mart was forced to pay over $11.7 million in back wages to Indianapolis workers in a sex discrimination suit.

The Asda case will seem particularly familiar to history undergraduate students at Hope who study Gender and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Second year students examine details of a 1968 British strike which has remarkable similarities to this twenty-first century episode. In June 1968, 187 machinists at a Dagenham factory challenged the might of the Ford Motor Company by taking industrial action. The female machinists demanded that their work be recognised as skilled labour and receive payment equal to that of their male colleagues.

The strike action came in the midst of a growth in support for the British Labour party and a rise in the power of trade unions. Labour unrest spread across the UK, newspapers were littered with calls for strikes and planned absenteeism. However, the Ford strike was different as it centred on women. The machinists called for what seemed to some an extraordinary demand: equal pay. According to Ford’s Managing Director, Sir William Batty, the strike action cost Ford Dagenham over £8 million in lost revenue and risked over 40,000 jobs in the company in Britain.

Harold Wilson’s Labour administration was forced to take action. After a series of failed interventions, Secretary of State for Employment & Productivity Barbara Castle, met privately with a delegation of eight striking women led by Rose Boland. Much to the surprise of trade unionists and Ford executives, Castle banned all men from the meeting. The women agreed to return to work when offered a raise in wages to equal 92% of that earned by their male colleagues.

Castle used the strike to introduce the prices and Income Bill later in 1968 and worked on a phasing in of equal pay. Ground-breaking legislation, The Equal Pay Act, was introduced in 1970, although employers were granted five years to make adjustments to female pay rates. The Act ensured that for the first time in British history employers were legally obliged to provide equal pay for work of equal value. Terminology that Asda and other companies may well have used to their advantage. For as long as certain occupations are viewed as gender specific, it will always be possible to pay women lower rates than men.

More information about studying History at Liverpool Hope is available from the department's webpages.

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