Care workers and cleaners of Dundee in fight for equal pay

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Before sunrise on Tuesday last week, amid an amber weather warning and Scotland’s coldest temperatures in 25 years, 62-year-old Sheila Petrie set off on a five-mile walk to work through 15cm of snow. A community-based care worker in Dundee, where public transport was suspended due to the severe weather, Petrie is employed by the city’s council. At 8am sharp, 40 minutes into the journey, an administrator phoned to ask why she hadn’t yet scanned in for her shift.

It’s an example, Petrie says, of being “totally undervalued and completely trodden on by the council,” a relationship that she says has got increasingly worse over her 20-year career and driven her to take early semi-retirement from April. And it is one that stings all the more with the knowledge that her employers have, Petrie believes, been systematically underpaying her throughout that time, because she works in a job dominated by women.

This is the allegation made by Petrie’s union, the GMB, which launched a collective grievance this month against Dundee city council over equal pay. Their case hinges on the council’s use of “craft agreements” in jobs traditionally dominated by men – such as bricklayers, joiners, roofers and glaziers – which include a bonus scheme in which workers are paid both productivity bonuses and fixed bonuses every month just for attending work.

Comparable sectors made up predominantly of women, such as care, cleaning and catering, receive no such bonuses, and those working in them, say the union, may have taken home thousands of pounds less than their male counterparts each year.

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This money has been stolen from these women and they’ll never get back all the extra hours they’ve workedHelen Meldrum, GMB

Although most of these workers earn the living wage of £9.50 an hour, the union says unpredictable shift patterns mean many can’t live on these wages alone and often work second and third jobs to top up their wages. With 5,000-10,000 workers involved, the council’s bill could run to tens of millions, evoking memories of the historic equal pay strike in Glasgow in 2018 by a similar workforce.

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“There’s almost even more of a sense of injustice because Dundee is a matriarchal city,” says GMB organiser Helen Meldrum, pointing to the north-east city’s history as a mill town dominated by brands such as Levi’s and Timex which employed predominantly women, earning Dundee the title of “She Town”.

In 1993, faced with layoffs, women at Dundee’s Timex factory led one of Scotland’s biggest industrial actions. “Everyone here knows women who worked in those factories; they’re in our families,” Meldrum says.

While the union is still amassing claims, she believes it is likely that there are women with equal pay cases against the council who were also involved in factory strikes over terms and conditions. “Dundee has a proud tradition of women leading industrial disputes and fights against injustices, and this is no exception,” she continues. “This money has been stolen from these women and they’ll never get back all the extra hours they’ve worked.”

The council has not yet responded, but the union hopes negotiations can avoid industrial action and a drawn-out battle in the courts. The case could also have implications across Scotland’s councils, many of which also use craft agreements.

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A spokesperson for Dundee city council told the Observer: “We have received a collective grievance from the GMB which we will consider and respond to in due course.”

For the workers involved, the dispute is as much about dignity and visibility as it is about money. “We’re expected to do more and more for less and less,” says Petrie, who points out that many of her colleagues return from their shifts to perform unpaid care for their parents and children.

“After how scary the last year has been, we’ve had enough of being treated how we’re treated. We deserve respect and to be recognised for what we’re worth.”