Rita Ash, Tower Hamlets Unison branch chair, has been a union activist for most of her working life. She spent many of them ensuring that women who were affected by their exclusion from the pension scheme get a gratuity payment as compensation, even years after they left the service. Here she talks about the reality of pensions for many older women.
I got married in 1969 at 22 years of age. I was told that I could now pay the married woman’s stamp.
This was cheaper than paying the single so many of us agreed to this. What no-one told us was that it would mean we didn’t get a pension of our own. You relied on your husband’s when he turned 65. At that time I worked on the telephone switchboard for the Yorkshire Post on Fleet Street as a temp.
I did that till I was six months pregnant with my first kid, and signed on at the labour exchange in Dodd Street. They got me a job as a packer in Brown’s factory in Coburn Road. I enjoyed it so much I stayed beyond the time my maternity benefits started and lost two weeks of them.
I had two kids. My husband didn’t want me to work while I was a mother. I think it was because his upbringing was hard and he put it down to his mum and dad not being there. But it drove me mad. I even worked for a couple of weeks without him knowing about it just to get out of the house.
My husband died at the age of 28. I was a widow, except that I was too young to get widow benefits. My husband hadn’t been paying into his stamp for long enough for me to get anything. My kids were three and one years old. The only way I would have anything to live on was if I remarried or went out to work.
There was very little childcare then. Martin, the eldest, went to nursery in the mornings and Sally went to a play group. I took in home work, stitching trousers and shirts. I would make 12 pairs of trousers or 15 shirts for £5. I would sit at the machine all morning, give the kids lunch, take Sally back to playgroup and work all afternoon. Then the kids would have to watch TV while I did the housework or, if friends had come round during the day, finish the sewing.
That was cash-in-hand. When both kids were in school I got a job as dinner lady at Saint Paul’s Way school. That was in 1981. Of course, I wasn’t paying the married woman’s stamp then, it was full stamp so I got my full state pension. But I wasn’t allowed to join the Local Government Pension Scheme because I was part-time. This was a rule that applied equally to men and women, but there were no part-time men. It was only women affected.
In 1994 they said we could join. I’ve been in it since 1994, 17.5 years but I will only get 14 years’ pension because of my part-time hours. I’ve worked for local government for 31 years.
My friend, Jill, has been a cleaner all year round but part-time hours. She’s been working as long as me but she’ll only get 7.5 years’ pension. She started out as a dinner lady, then became a cleaner as well. Two jobs. She’s 59 now. She works from 6am to 6pm as cleaner and in the kitchens. Under the government proposals she will have to work until she is 63. If she retires at 60 she will lose 23% of her pension.
My son will have to work till he pops his clogs. I was shocked that Unison leadership are selling us up the river. We shouldn’t be negotiating. We should be fighting.
The RBS bloke with his £1m bonus — he didn’t even have to go into negotiations for that. How many MPs have been made redundant? How many MPs have had their pensions affected? How many MPs were denied the right to join a pension scheme?
I’ve had women crying to me: “All I’m getting is £3 a week state pension,” because they took the married woman’s stamp.
And then their work pension is only a tiny proportion of the years’ service they’ve given to the borough.