“Why should we care about the WASPI women?” A guide for millennials

20 May 2019

WASPI Reception, Scottish Parliament. Video: Jennifer Jones

Why we should be paying attention to policy changes to pensions

It’s a Thursday lunchtime and I am surrounded by women my mother’s age. We are meeting at a busy cafe in my hometown of Ayr.

The venue, Unity Grill, is a pay-what-you-can-afford social restaurant. The ethos is that people can volunteer in return for a free meal voucher, or even pay ahead for somebody else’s lunch who might not be able to afford it. It was set up to provide a warm and inviting space for both community groups and paying diners alike. The women meet here regularly.

Frances Brown was born in 1953. We first met in the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament after a cross-party debate hosted by Sandra White MSP of the SNP and Jackie Baillie MSP of the Scottish Labour Party. She is one of 3.8 million women across the UK and nearly 56,000 in Ayrshire who were born in the 1950s. They were the first wave of women to be impacted by the rise in the state pension age from 60 to 65, then again in 2011 to 66 by October 2020.

Brown has played a pinnacle role in coordinating the women to come to meet me. She is one of the WASPI women, standing for the Women Against State Pension Injustice campaign. WASPI was founded in 2015, with groups forming all over the UK. I am meeting with representatives from the Ayr branch to try and make more sense of this Westminster policy change.

Lynne, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Her colleague Lynne Paterson emphasises that 14 other women wanted to join us. Eight others had compiled statements for me to read. Each one is a personal story of how they have been affected by the changes to the state pension age.

Jackie Baillie, MSP, told me that she had experienced the same response when she organised a meeting for WASPI women in her Dumbarton constituency, which lead to the event at parliament. Baillie said: “I arranged a meeting with the women in Dumbarton. I was stunned when hundreds of women turned up to meet me. So we were keen, to not just do that in our local areas but to actually host a cross-party group in the [Scottish] parliament itself. We felt we needed to also host a reception afterwards so that MSPs can learn what it is like, what the financial hardship are for this whole generation of women born in the 50s that are WASPI women.”

Until now, I had heard about the WASPI campaign in passing. I had seen them at political gatherings, dressed as suffragettes, wearing WASPI sashes. I had read a few articles about their DWP letter writing campaign and seen Mhairi Black prolifically debate the issue in Westminster via viral videos on social media. But even at that, I am still trying to get my head around their demands as a financially-naive thirty-something who began their professional career at the peak of the 2007 financial crisis.

Standing in my mother’s kitchen, a woman born in the 1950s herself, she is asking me to consider: “Why we should care about the WASPI women?”, reflecting back the criticism she often receives when she comes to their defence. The challenge for some, especially generations that feel that pensions are a pipe dream, is that the WASPI demands seem too far removed from our current reality. Also, the word “pension” seems to make people my age want to go buy another round of drinks, chuckling nervously that it is better to spend it now because they are dismantling the system for when we get there. I am the master of this sort of deflection.

I log onto Twitter, and tweet some early thoughts about the WASPI campaign. For the first time, I encounter “pension twitter”, a hive of activity. It turns out to be as controversial as any other divisive political issue currently being played out online. This I did not expect. I am accused of being “manipulated” by the women, that I have been duped by their campaign, that somehow what I am working on is propaganda for their cause. Nobody is willing to go on the record, mainly out of the fear that they’ll be accused of being a troll. I take a step back, pension politics making my head spin. But in reality, I am more inclined to think I am now even more WASPI-curious.

After many years of austerity, pensions are the topical issue. The promise is that if you work hard, and give the government your money through national insurance, you will reap the benefits when you reach the end of your working life. The national pension pot, whatever that looks like in practice, has been dipped into over the years. In 2011 George Osborne saw the opportunity to save billions by closing the gap in the pension age and to make it “equal”, no matter side of the political gap you fall on.

Davina, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

In Ayr, this is Davina’s first WASPI meeting. She is a retired head teacher. But she is here to talk about her sister. “Personally I don’t have a super story to tell, my sister is the person I see struggling with these changes” she says. “My sister is a cleaner in the hospital, she has fibromyalgia, fallen arches in her feet, sore knees, and she will have to work until 67. She cannot leave, she has no pension as she’s only worked there eight years. And she is working every day. Every single day. And she is in agony, because she needs to work. And she only found out about the pension age changes when the age was raised to 66. One year added on is a lot different from six.”

She iterates: “Having an equal pension age is not the issue, it was meant to be equalised at a steady pace, but it jumped up to match the men’s age. It was an easy way for the government to save a lot of money by accelerating it.”

SNP MSP Sandra White, co-convener of the WASPI cross-party group at the Scottish Parliament, puts it bluntly: “Women entered into a contract, they entered into a contract with the Westminster government. They paid it in in their national insurance contributions, they should be getting that money now. If I was to put this money into a private pension, I would be entitled to get that money back. Who says it is right to change the terms of the contract, it is not a benefit, it is a contract. And they are entitled to this money.”

Christine, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Christine Smith was born in 1954. She has considered herself an activist all her working life. Despite having access to a private pension from her workplace, Smith joined WASPI to fight on behalf of those who will get nothing.

For her, it is not about the fact the pension age has been levelled to match the men’s age for retirement, but it was about the way it was done: “It should have been about equality for women, but it was done in a dismissive way towards women to say, well there are a group of women, what they going to do about it, nobody is going to bother – and we’ve treated like this women for years, a little bit more is not going to make much difference?”

Working in a civilian role within the police, she reflects on her shift patterns and the women that she would see on the way to work: “I would start work at 6am in the morning and it would be freezing. I would be travelling through Maryhill, and I would see these wee women, standing at bus stops waiting for buses.

“At that time of the morning, they would be few and far between, so that they could get to their shift in Glasgow, and then will probably be going out later on at lunchtime, then a shift in the evening, plus they were expected to look after their own family and potentially their parents.”

Smith emphasises that the current discussions around precarious working practices are not new. She says: “Zero-hour contracts in these days were called casual labour. And many women had to take jobs like this. They would have been going in, probably unofficially, probably didn’t have any pension at all – there would have been somebody giving them a bung for doing their work.”

For many of the WASPI women, they have had to return to lower income, less secure jobs in order to make up the shortfall in their earning. And with so little discourse around the impact that these changes have had for women, other institutions have failed to catch up with the impact.

Frances, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Frances describes another friend, who she met through the WASPI movement: “She got divorced several years ago. Her divorce settlement was based on her retirement age being 60. So when she moved house and took on a small mortgage, it was all based on her retirement age of 60. Then she found out this was not the case.

“She ended up having to take three part-time cleaning jobs, morning, lunchtime, and evenings to make up the shortfall. She came to my house for a meeting. And five other women came to my house that day. She was working four mornings a week, she came to us on one of the mornings she wasn’t working and she was absolutely knackered, and we were all whispering when we were doing the letters. We couldn’t bear to wake her up…”

Bernie, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Bernie French, born in 1956, a trained therapist, also found herself having to look for work to help make up the shortfall. She is on the books as a self-employed counsellor, on a zero-hour contract, but hasn’t had a shift since January.

She notes that the career services in Scotland just don’t know how to support women her age and are stuck in this limbo: “When I went to Skills Development Scotland, they were really nice – but totally unhelpful. They are for younger people at the start of their career… We fall through every single crack there is. I looked at everything. I wrote to my local MSP – I was told to try this, and then try that – but I’m not sure I can help you. I was the wrong age, I wasn’t on benefits, I didn’t qualify for anything. And I will not be the only one.”

The type of job available for women then, and even now, is also important when considering the WASPI case. A question raised by the women, many of whom challenged and carved out the original space for women in the workplace, is this: was their long working life ever equal to what was available to men in their first place?

French reflects on when she first entered the workplace at 13: “It was normal to see advertisements for the same job, and a woman would get two thirds of what a male salary was.

“For my first job, I worked in a small store, and they’d only just introduced the requirement for employers to employ girls as well. This guy who was the manager, he was clearly not happy with having to employ girls. And because the boys were mainly in the storeroom, he would pay them more.”

For French, it is only since looking back through her career has she recognised that these situations of inequality was just something put up with. The feeling that it was “lucky” to work in the stockroom with the boys, instead of receiving the same pay when she was doing the same job: “The number of times I spent in that storeroom, doing the same job, but getting paid less, because officially I wasn’t working in the store room…Yet, it I felt like it was an honour because I was like…I was working in the hallowed ground of the store room. That was the normal, but that is your inequality right there.”

Frances has fought for equality in the workplace for her entire career, and did so because she knew she didn’t have it. Despite being promoted to a principal officer, and the only one at that level with a degree, she found out that her other colleagues – all men – were earning more than her. She even had more responsibilities: “I was managing two teams, the others were managing one team. My two teams were 43 miles apart – because I was in a large county with very disparate areas. It was more work, more responsibility, more driving. And I was cheaper for them.

“So all my working life, I have struggled to be treated the same. And now suddenly now I am 60, I have to be treated the same as men. I think that it is grossly unfair.”

Listening to their stories, I can feel their frustration. It is 2019 and they’re still fighting against inequality. And they still feel like they are not being listened to. What hope do we have when it feels like that so many things have changed but nothing has changed at all?

They are also faced with intergenerational tensions. When trying to reach out to their younger family members about their plight, they are met with the perennial “it’s ok for you, at least you are getting a pension” (sorry mum) and expected to provide care and support for the generation below, and quite often the generation above as well.

A positive, however, has been the collective nature of the WASPI women and how they have came together, shared stories and formed friendships. As White emphasised in parliament: “These women have not only became educated, but they have become politicised also.”

So, I return to my mum’s statement ““Why we should care about the WASPI women?” and I am reminded of the words of feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

For our generation to so passively abandon the hope that there would be anything left for the future, for us to ignore the way the older generation is spoken to and about – this is a reflection of where we want to go as a society. It is convenient to have us all at loggerheads with each other over political issues; intergenerationally, it is even more so. The women remind me that there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality in the workplace, and beyond – and that rights that were hardfought, and things that were promised, can be taken away again just as quickly. Their energy to keep on fighting, even when they are faced with criticism and uncertainty, is something we should all be paying attention to.

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