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Raw deal for older women

Those with caring responsibilities still routinely find the odds stacked against them, writes FRANCES O'GRADY

Big changes at work and in society have transformed women's lives over the last 50 years.

Changes to the law can take some of the credit, starting with the introduction of the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts in 1975, which forced a sea change in employer behaviour.

But let's be clear, those landmark parliamentary Acts wouldn't have happened without the bravery of Ford sewing machinists taking strike action.

The shift in employer behaviour has not come by chance either - they have been pushed along by thousands of union reps determined that female members have a fair say, and fair rewards, at work. And the battle against discrimination in pay and life is far from won.

The generation of women approaching retirement today have spent virtually their entire lives protected by these landmark pieces of legislation.

Many were also the first to receive statutory maternity leave, although they struggled to balance work with looking after their children as few employers offered flexible working arrangements.

But despite all this, older women are still being short-changed at work.

In fact, many women - even those now in their sixties - are nowhere near retiring as they simply can't afford not to work. There has been a sharp increase in the number of women over 50 in work - but they still earn a fifth less per hour than men of the same age and the majority of those working part-time earn less than £10,000.

The TUC has spent the last 12 months investigating why older women have been so badly let down.

We've heard from thousands of women across the country on a range of topics, from job insecurity and poverty pay to widespread ignorance of health issues and shocking reports of dual discrimination that older women face every day.

Women have told us that one of their biggest concerns is caring responsibilities.

Our investigation found that around half of all women over 50 regularly look after their parents, while two in five still looked after their own children.

Add in the help that many grandparents provide, as well as care for disabled partners and other relatives, and you've got a complex set of caring responsibilities that need to be fitted in around work. As life expectancy increases, these caring pressures are only going to grow.

The rising state pension age also means that more women will have to care for loved ones while still at work.

But working people need more support from government and employers, particularly as public services are slashed.

Current working practices simply aren't good enough. If a grandmother wants to help look after their grandchild - we know that nearly seven million working grandparents regularly provide childcare - she has to rely on the goodwill of her employer to grant her reduced hours.

It's often hard to plan for caring responsibilities. A close relative becoming very ill or disabled can turn your whole world upside down.

An employer allowing a couple of days of emergency leave may not be enough to cover the many hospital appointments, legal and social care arrangements, and emotional adjustments to be made.

Many women end up leaving their job to care for their partners. And once you're out of work, it can be very hard to return.

Caring and working should be an "either/or." There are simple things the government could do which would make a huge difference to millions of working carers' lives.

A new right to leave for grandparents - similar to unpaid parental leave - would help millions more care for their grand children.

A new right to paid carers' leave would those caring for sick or disabled loved ones, while adjustment leave could give workers flexibility to cope with a big change in their caring circumstances. These new rights would cost employers very little in practice but they would make a huge difference both to working women - and men - who are faced with new caring responsibilities, and those who rely on that care.

Our population and workforce is ageing. More and more people will need to combine work with caring roles for our economy to thrive.

Changes to the right to request flexible working, due to come in later this year, will mean that flexible working is no longer a right that's only relevant to younger mothers - men and women of all ages will benefit.

But too often working women bear the brunt of this clash between work and family life - given a Hobson's choice of no job or low pay.

Older women often tell us they feel invisible. It is time for unions to support women so they come out from the shadows, make some noise and get the fair deal we all deserve.


Frances O'Grady is general secretary of the TUC


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