Helen is still not free

Something's not right here...

‘The whole world knows what you are now Rob.’

‘I still can’t take my eyes off you.’

And there it was; the reality check. I almost breathed a sigh of relief.

The verdicts on the Archers last night were met with great rejoicing by half the country and most of Twitter as the right result. But the truth is, for many women in Helen’s position, this is not the end.

Domestic violence continues to be poorly managed by the justice system to the extent that two women a week are killed by their partners or exes in the UK, all too often with a history of abuse*. The danger is not understood, the escalation of violence missed. It’s a hard crime to recognise even for the victim, hard to explain to friends and family who cannot match the victim’s account with the charming man they know. But it has terrifying results.

The Archers storyline has gripped the nation because it has played out in real time, coming into people’s homes and work places on the radio, Rob’s voice whispering into our ears as he whispered into hers. The drip-feed of toxic incidents  tells its own story. Maybe today, more people have a grasp of what it is to lose your confidence and sense of self because of this kind of bullying. Which is why this was too important an opportunity for the writers to pretend that the end of the trial was Helen’s Happy Ever After. Justice is often elusive for women in her position.

After the too-good-to-be-true verdicts, the final exchange between Helen and Rob brought us back down to earth. Rob is not going away. He’s been convicted of nothing because it wasn’t him on trial. The verdicts won’t slow him down or affect his behaviour in the least. She’ll have to deal with him in the custody battle which will follow now and he’ll try to worm his way back into her life.

It will maybe help Helen, that she’s had a chance to tell her story and has been believed. She’ll have the support of her parents and some of the wider community. But as the jury deliberations showed, she hasn’t been believed by everyone.

Which makes me think that the writers are setting us up for trial no.2. It could be either of them on trial. This storyline has the potential to run and run. If it continues to mimic real life, it could last for years.

I wonder which of them will be alive by the end. But I already think I know the answer.

*Office for National Statistics, Home Office

Equal Pay Day

So today is #EqualPayDay and there’s a lot of chat on Twitter about equal pay for women. The Telegraph and the Independent announced that from this day on till the end of the year, women are working for free. That’s set the heather burning. Lots of people, mainly men, saying the gender pay gap is a myth.

They make some interesting points. Like, we’ve had an Equal Pay Act since the 70s which made it illegal for men to be paid less than women. Which is true. The only snag is that no one enforces it so it doesn’t work. Failure to pay equally is not a criminal matter, so the police are not going to be phoning up businesses who fail to pay women the same as men doing the same job. No one does that. Only the underpaid women have a right to take action, and these days the tribunal service is so expensive that most can’t afford to make the claim. Also, if they do, they stand a good chance of losing their job or being sidelined. Yes that’s technically illegal too but it still goes on, routinely. No one is monitoring this stuff. And the government has watered down the employment law that might have protected claimants.

So if no one in authority is preventing this and women can’t afford to do anything about it themselves, what is to stop it happening? Nothing. There are success stories. In April this year, a group of co-workers succeeded in a class action against their employer Birmingham City Council after being excluded from bonuses paid to men. There are class actions ongoing against Asda and Sainsbury’s. But most breaches of the law go unnoticed.

All of which begs the question – why? Why are women paid less than men for equivalent work? Many in the ‘myth’ camp point out that if businesses could get away with paying women less, they would just hire women over men and save money. But if businesses did so it would be obvious and would draw negative publicity. Much easier to hide different wage rates. Earners don’t generally share information about what they earn. They’re often in competition with their co-workers. And employers can also call it commercially sensitive information. In other words, they don’t want their business competitors to know what they pay. With women working more part-time jobs than men, it is easy enough to hide the fact they are on lower rates because most people throwing a cursory glance over the wages bill would think a difference in earnings between men and women is down to the differences in hours worked. Negative publicity is in many ways a more effective tool against a business than the existing law because it is free and available to all. And because it carries an effective sanction.

If a policy, whether deliberate or simply tolerated, is costing the business money, it will be changed. It can be changed. Which is why we need to acknowledge the truth of the gender pay gap and demand more action to redress it.

Perhaps it’s time for a tax on unequal pay. Put the onus back on the employers to demonstrate that they pay their employees equally. Why should it be left to women to foot the bill? This is an issue which affects society fundamentally on many levels. It’s in everyone’s interests to sort it out. It’s in the government’s interests because it would put a serious dent in their tax credit bill. Let any difference found between the wages of a woman and a man doing an equivalent job be recoverable by an appropriate authority. Let’s call it the Equal Pay Agency. Make it free and confidential. Then watch the queues form.

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