The British Civil Service and Equal Pay (Chapter 3 of my History Honours dissertation)

The British Civil Service

There were similarities between the British and the New Zealand campaigns for equal pay in the public service. One example is that, like New Zealand, Britain introduced a family allowance, at the end of the Second World War, challenging the concept of the breadwinner male wage.[1] According to Helen Glew, the campaign in Britain really began gaining traction and support in 1944 when a Royal Commission on Equal Pay was established in response to a House of Commons debate.[2] Harold L Smith disagrees with this assessment, making the case that equal pay campaigns had twice nearly succeeded in the 1930s and 1940s in Britain. The Royal Commission had in fact been a ploy by the Conservative Churchill government to delay parliamentary consideration of equal pay till after the war when pressure for reform would have subsided.[3] In the mid 1930’s British feminist organisations had begun building equal pay campaigns. Feminist groups argued that equal pay protected male jobs, as they found this was easier to win public support for the cause than arguing their position from a justice for women position.[4] As women entered the workforce in greater numbers during the war support for equal pay continued to increase. Public opinion increasingly favoured equal pay in Britain by the early 1950s, which eventually resulted in a political response. This change in Britain had a significant effect on the New Zealand campaign and public opinion about equal pay.

In Britain as in Australia and New Zealand, state arbitration mechanisms were used to regulate civil service pay which were at arm’s length from elected politicians. These mechanisms were used by governments to avoid taking action on equal pay following the Second World War.[5] In the early 1950s the threat of arbitration was used as successful leverage against the British local government sector for clerical government workers.[6] In 1952 council unions began a petition campaign regarding low pay for clerical workers in that sector after it emerged that the British Government had told the ILO that equal pay in that sector should be settled in collective bargaining.[7] The petition, which gained considerable support, said that the clerical rates set in 1919 were a “miscalculation,” specifically that the rates were calculated because it was wrongly believed that clerical women could not do the same work as efficiently as clerical men.[8] This tactic of arguing about this 1919 calculation by local authorities was a way of challenging local government justifications about wage setting being based on efficiency.[9]

The Conservative British Government’s announcement of its intention to introduce equal pay into the civil service in 1954 influenced the decision of the New Zealand PSA to renew the push for equal pay in the mid-1950s.[10] Far greater attention was given to the British equal pay movement by the New Zealand campaign than other countries like Indonesia where the cause was further advanced.[11] Along with the continued influence of English law in New Zealand, one reason for this was the phenomenon known as the cultural cringe, a term first coined in the 1950s by early postcolonial academics.[12] Cultural cringe was considered to be born out of British imperialism and the assumption that New Zealand and Australian culture was a derivative culture that mimicked Britain.[13] This concept describes how in many ways New Zealanders would attempt to mimic Britain socially and politically. In this example New Zealand’s equal pay campaign was in something of a hiatus until the British campaign made achievements for their civil servants. The concept of men being the breadwinner and needing to be paid a higher wage had come from Britain. When Britain introduced equal pay for the Civil Service and rejected the concept of the male breadwinner, the New Zealand campaign really took off.

In discussing the shift in the New Zealand National Party’s position on equal pay during the 1950s, Cook says “support for equal pay was growing in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries; although this did not translate into concrete action until the mid-fifties.”[14] The overseas connections appear to have been relatively strong[15] with mention of the British campaign often made at women’s conferences and in PSA publications at the time. The British campaign was cited as an example of how women could win pay parity in New Zealand.[16]

The developments in the UK were reported on regularly in the New Zealand PSA Journal. When the British Government made changes to the Civil Service pay grades to bring women up to male wages the PSA Journal described the phased introduction of equal pay.[17] In March 1955 the PSA Journal claimed that Britain would introduce equal pay for government employees working in clerical and professional roles. In March 1955 it was reported that in Indonesia “since the founding of the republic, the principle of equal pay for equal work is accepted and applied to the Government Service”.[18] In June 1956 it was reported in the PSA Journal that seven Latin American countries had made equal pay “normal practice in their public service.”[19] This gives us some idea that events happening internationally were being noticed and reported on by those wishing to see similar developments in New Zealand.

[1] Helen Glew The slow road to victory: the equal pay campaigns from 1939 to 1954  Manchester University Press 2016 154

[2] Glew 150

[3] Harold L Smith The Problem of “Equal Pay for Equal Work” in Great Britain during World War II The Journal of Modern History, volume 53 Number 4 1981 671

[4] Harold L Smith British feminism and the equal pay issue in the 1930s Women’s history review 1996 102

[5] Glew 159

[6] Glew 162

[7] Glew 161

[8] Glew 162

[9] Glew 162

[10] Alan Henderson The quest for efficiency: the origins of the State Services Commission State Services Commission 1990 236

[11] PSA Journal Indonesia shows how Volume 42 Number 3, March 1955

[12] Katie Pickles Transnational History and Cultural Cringe: Some Issues for Consideration in New Zealand, Australia and Canada History Compass Volume 9, 12 September 2011 2

[13] Pickles 2

[14] Henderson 83

[15] Corner 3

[16] Cook 16

[17] PSA Journal All this in seven years, British Equal Pay Volume 43 number 3 1956 6

[18] PSA Journal Indonesia shows the way Volume 42 number 3 1955 7

[19] PSA Journal All this in seven years, British Equal Pay  volume 43 number 3 1956 6

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