TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady: 'Ditch 1950s idea that women just need pin money, we need a proper wage as much as any man'

When Frances O’Grady became General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress in 2013 she was the first woman to hold the post.

Seven years later, as the industrial body prepares for its annual congress beginning on Monday, where priorities are set for the coming year, gender is still an issue at the forefront of her mind.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post this week, Ms O’Grady said she had a number of concerns on issues affecting working people, from zero-hour contacts to front-line workers who had been battling through the pandemic.

But of particular importance in Yorkshire was the number of workers stuck on the minimum wage.

Frances O'Grady, TUC General Secretary. Photo: JPI Media

The national minimum wage –rebranded as the national living wage in 2016 by the Government – is £8.72 for those aged over 25.

The real living wage, as certified by the Living Wage Foundation, is £9.30 and £10.75 in London.

Latest data from the Low Pay Commission, an independent body that advises the Government, shows that 34,600 people in Yorkshire and the Humber are paid less than the minimum wage.

That is 21.1 per cent of the workforce aged 16 to 24 and 18.4 per cent of the workforce aged 25 or more.

“And it is mostly women,” Ms O’Grady said.

“I do worry sometimes about this 1950s idea that women are working for pin money and do not need to earn as much. I worry about some of those ideas surfacing.”

In 2019 the gender pay gap was 17.3 per cent in the UK.

Ms O’Grady added: “Women need a proper wage as much as any man.”

It is an issue she knows from personal experience, having raised her two children on her own after splitting with her partner.

And it meant she recognised the role women would play in the union movement long before she became the head of the TUC.

Therefore, women – who tend to work in lower-paid, part-time, less-secure jobs, are a focus, as are grave concerns about the type of work available, especially to those living in the North.

“We’ve seen a growth in zero-hour contracts,” Ms O’Grady said.

“And dignity and respect are important too. We’ve seen worrying reports in the rise in abuse of shop workers.”

Her comments came as the TUC launched a campaign for Ministers to boost statutory sick pay (SSP) and ensure everyone is eligible for it.

Returning to a common theme, many of those not eligible for SPP are women as they do not meet the lower earnings limit.

Those receiving statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or additional paternity pay are also currently not eligible to receive SSP.

The self-employed are also excluded and have been hit hard by the effects on the pandemic.

It is a call echoed by the leaders of Labour-run councils in West Yorkshire where coronavirus restrictions have been put back in place.

Ms O’Grady said: “The lack of decent sick pay puts everything at risk. Asking workers to self isolate on £96 a week is not viable – especially when many don’t have savings to fall back on.

“We can’t have a situation where people are forced to choose between their health and paying their bills.”

She said it was a “civic duty” for employers to step up, but added: “Where bosses can’t or won’t, the Government must step in.

“Unless Ministers fix this gaping hole in our safety net Britain will be ill prepared for a second wave of infections or more local lockdowns.”

Ms O’Grady, 60, welcomed Government safety guidelines published for workplaces but called for them to be better enforced.

“I think sometimes politicians forget there are millions of people and key workers who have worked right through this and basically they’ve put themselves on the line for the rest of us.

“People want to work generally, and we know that working from home, even if you can, is not a rose garden for everyone. What the Government needs to focus on is making workplaces safe.”

Part of the push, she said, should come from new Tory MPs in “red wall” seats.

She said: “I think some of the new MPs need to raise their voices.

“They must be hearing what I’m hearing from working people, that they are worried about their jobs, that they want stronger rights at work and they want hospitals and schools to be properly funded.”

Ms O’Grady said although unionism had is roots with Labour, something she said she was proud of, it was key for the Government and elected officials to engage with the movement.

“We work with MPs of any stripe,” she said.

“I know in many ways we have a couple who probably never expected to be in that role at a time where the state has to be so active in supporting the economy and there are parts of the Conservative Party who find that difficult.

“But the Government also has to make up its mind if it is prepared to deliver those promises to working families across Yorkshire.

“It’s about what does modern Conservatism stand for?”