“We’re invisible, but we carry the world on our shoulders”

SARAH JONES was at the launch of a campaign to give better, fairer treatment to older women

It takes a lot to shock me these days. But yesterday morning, I was choking back tears with some of the most resilient women I have ever met.

This morning I learned about the silent scandal of the discrimination against older women which is happening right under our noses.

Harriet Harman and Sarah Jones (at the back, centre of shot) with some of the women from Croydon and south London who they met this morning

Harriet Harman and Sarah Jones (at the back, centre of shot) with some of the women from Croydon and south London who they met yesterday morning

I was at a meeting of older women organised by Harriet Harman and Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Harman, a powerhouse in the Labour Party who has forced positive change for women in many ways for many years, is leading an Older Women’s Commission, looking at why so many older women are discriminated against, overlooked and mistreated.

There were around 20 women at the meeting, and they had all experienced workplace discrimination.

Sue (not her real name) is 73 and has worked for 14 years for the same employer. Her hours have been cut and she has to work from 6am to 12.30pm. So every morning she gets up at 4am to get to work. She has to work because she needs the money. Sue is divorced, but her husband is paralysed, so she has become his full-time carer.

She has also cared over the years for her elderly parents, her aunt and a cousin. “A woman is always looking after someone, and that is it,” she said. But her managers don’t value her long service or understand her carers needs – quite the opposite.

“They can’t get rid of you, but they make it very difficult. I feel very, very vulnerable.”

Rachel works at a supermarket on the night shift. From 9pm to 7am she is pressured to meet ever-increasing targets. “I feel my boss wants to get rid of me because I’m on the old contract.” She has worked there for 10 years. She has an older relative who doesn’t live locally that she has to look after. “They don’t have empathy, they don’t have respect. They destroyed my Christmas because the volume of work was so immense. They want me out because of my age.”

In the bag: older women who work in some of the country's best-known stores feel pressured and discriminated against

In the bag: older women who work in some of the country’s best-known stores feel pressured and discriminated against

Lila is 67 and she has worked at one of the major supermarkets for 13 years. The turnover of managers is high, and every time a new one comes in, she has to justify herself to them.

“A new one comes in and looks at your age – they assume I’m going to be slower,” she said. “But a lot of my managers have said I’m actually faster than the young lads!” It’s not that Lila can’t do the work, she is constantly battling discrimination and lazy assumptions.

Trudy has been a full-time carer for her bed-ridden and severely disabled husband since 2005. She is also a grandmother. She works 30 hours a week because she has to, and her daughter helps with her husband while she is out. She has worked at the same company for 22 years. “They say don’t bring your troubles to work, but how can I not?” She has more experience and wisdom than the younger staff, but that isn’t taken into account. And for Trudy, the problems go beyond her inflexible employers.

She gets very little help looking after her husband, even to the extent where she is expected to pay for his incontinence pads out of her own money. The combination of nasty government policies around disability and the local employment practices could have broken anyone. But Trudy is so keen to see a change, that she offered to stuff envelopes for my campaign while she is at home with her husband. Extraordinary.

BULLYING WAS CITED time and again as a problem.

As Georgina put it: “They tend to pick on the older members of staff. The big managers are older men, who bully the younger managers in the shop, who then bully the older women on the shop floor.” A pattern of behaviour that these women believed the senior staff in their places of employment had no understanding of. “They think they are being good, having flexible working. But flexible working is not flexible. It means any hours, any time and next week you’ll be doing something different.”

There seems no room for empathy from those who work in retail management for their older customers. Staff must not spend a moment chatting to an elderly customer who won’t speak to anyone else that day, in case the staff don’t meet targets. “We’ve worked in retail all our lives, but that is not appreciated.”

And at this time of year, the women working in retail suffer the most. The managers have to meet targets before the end of the financial year, so there’s no overtime, hours are reduced, and even health and safety is cut. One women had been told that her 24-hour store would have no security until the start of the new financial year.

And the stories kept coming about discrimination of older and middle-aged women in the workplace.

Sarah Jones, left, with Harriet Harman and Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the Croydon Labour group

Sarah Jones, left, with Harriet Harman and Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the Croydon Labour group

At the age of 52, Agatha works from 3am because she has three or four families to look after one way or another. Ella does the night shift because it fits round her son who has special needs. She wants to stop as she has arthritis, and her sister has been diagnosed with cancer, but she needs the money. Rose has worked for years for the same supermarket but doesn’t work on Sunday’s because she always makes lunch for her elderly dad. “They don’t like it that I don’t work on the weekend.”

As Harman said: “You start to be a marked woman, and your age marks you out.”

The stories I heard of the real lives of extraordinary women in some ways made me so very proud to be among such strong people. But these stories mostly made me very angry. And made me want to see change.

We haven’t got equality yet in this country, and we haven’t got a government that cares about working people. We need employers to take a good look at themselves and their employment practices on the shop floor.

We need a Labour government to tackle these issues head-on. To call this what it is – discrimination. We need new laws, better employment practices, more support for carers and more respect for our older women who are so often keeping this society on its feet.

We need to encourage people to join trades unions. We need to recognise that women give a lifetime of work to society and they can do different things at different times. If they need to take time to look after partners and children and families, let’s be grateful and help them do that. Not least because the state would be paying a lot more if social services or the NHS had to do the caring.

The older women in our society bear all our burdens. I know my mum has borne mine. They have to juggle paid work with caring responsibilities, often for grandchildren as well as elderly relatives. They have to work in physically demanding environments which doesn’t always help their health. They are at the sharp end of negative views of older women, often from their much younger managers who write them off. And increasingly, they have no say over the hours they work, having to work whatever hours they are given.

As a society, we understand these days the needs of young mums, how they need to juggle parenthood and work. But we are ignoring the needs of older women, who hold our society together caring for the young and old. As one woman put it so perfectly: “We’re invisible, but with the world on our shoulders.”

So it’s time to get angry. And it’s time to stop this invisible discrimination.

  • Sarah Jones is the Labour Party’s parliamentary candidate for Croydon Central

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2 Responses to “We’re invisible, but we carry the world on our shoulders”

  1. catswiskas says:

    I feel sad and angry and humbled. Thank you for highlighting this issue, Sarah.

  2. When will Labour have a woman as our Prime Minister? Will the unions approve a woman PM?

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