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TUC Congress ’19 Fighting the class ‘glass ceiling’

Even within professional roles, creatives from working-class backgrounds are paid less than well-heeled colleagues, writes Equity’s CHRISTINE PAYNE

THE LATEST report of the Social Mobility Commission found that inequality and class privilege remain entrenched in Britain and that those from working-class backgrounds face considerable disadvantages in the labour market.

In the creative sector, working-class people are hugely under-represented — fewer than 13 per cent of people working in film and TV come from working-class backgrounds.
 
Recent research by Sam Friedman and others has found that even when they are successful in breaking into professional careers, they still earn significantly less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds: a “class pay gap” of — on average — £7,000 less.

Women from working-class backgrounds are earning even less — and black working-class women earning on average £19,000 a year less.

Commentators such as Toby Young have suggested these findings are down to ability or IQ, but the researchers have shown that even when those from working-class backgrounds are similar to their advantaged colleagues in every measurable way, they still earn significantly less.
 
This research powerfully shows that if the focus is only on social mobility — on improving opportunity and access to creative careers — this would not address more fundamental class inequalities and barriers in the sector, which lie behind the class pay gap.
 
Equity is working to tackle the disadvantages and discrimination faced by working-class performers and creative practitioners getting into and getting on in the sector.

It is also supporting a parliamentary inquiry by the Performers Alliance All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the class ceiling in the creative sector, alongside the Musicians’ Union and Writers’ Guild, and this year, members have formed a class network in the union.

A core barrier to getting on is the prevalence of low pay — and sometimes no pay — and the precariousness and short-term nature of work in the sector. This disadvantages those without independent financial means, working other part-time jobs, who do not have the flexibility when auditions are called — or are working in a bar until 4am the night before one, with less time to prepare.

The Performers Alliance APPG inquiry has also heard from working-class performers who have spoken about getting typecast early on for caricatured working-class roles.

Equity members spoke of “one-way casting:” of rarely getting an opportunity to audition for characters that wear a suit or speak with a Received Pronunciation accent, when actors from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to play characters from all over the country and from varying backgrounds.
 
So much of what’s needed to address class inequality goes to the heart of what we do as a trade union: from fighting to secure financially sustainable careers (improving terms and conditions of work, guaranteeing basic levels of pay); to ensuring equal opportunities in accessing, entering and making progress in work.
 
The challenges of unequal representation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in the arts workforce have long been part of the union’s campaigning and industrial work. This research and work demands we must take seriously not just the “glass” but also the “class” ceiling — and in a way which recognises the intersectional nature of this issue, with multiple disadvantages faced by women, people with disabilities and BAME groups from working-class backgrounds.
 
The TUC is planning a major new initiative to combat discrimination and prejudice on class. Equity’s motion to Congress asks that this important work includes measures for closing the “privilege gap,” alongside rebuilding working-class communities and power. A good place to start would be to bring to life section 1 of the 2010 Equality Act, which introduces a legal requirement on public bodies aimed at reducing socio-economic disadvantage.

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