Yvette Shapiro: ‘We’ve all got rights. And we’re all entitled to equality’

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By VIEW guest editor Yvette Shapiro

“I was fighting for our love, for what we were to each other.”

The searing simplicity of Denise Brewster’s words on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme brought a lump to my throat. And I, like many of you, cheered the Coleraine woman’s victory after a long legal battle to receive payments from her late partner’s pension.

Denise lost her fiancé, Translink employee Lenny McMullan, on Boxing Day 2009. She was denied payments from his pension scheme because Lenny, with whom she’d shared a home for 10 years, had not filled in a nomination form. Married couples, and those in civil partnerships, are automatically entitled to the payments.

The resulting legal challenge took seven years to conclude at the Supreme Court, where the refusal to pay out was deemed unlawful.

The landmark judgment has delivered justice and financial security to Denise, as well as a significant extension of the rights of unmarried cohabitees across the UK.

And it’s an important victory for equality. As former pensions minister Steve Webb said: “It is unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second class citizens. We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today.”

But the world of the workplace remains steeped in inequality, fuelled by post-recession employment practices which employers like to call “flexible”. I call them unfair.

Look around your workplace. It’s likely that some female colleagues are being paid less – considerably less – than male workers doing the same job.

And whether it’s the public, private or voluntary sector, there’ll be a hotch-potch of employment status and security: full and part-time staff (the gold standard); contract workers; casual employees; zero-hours contractors; freelancers; agency workers and interns (paid and unpaid).

That obviously ill woman who never takes a day off? She’s got no sick pay rights, so she can’t afford not to turn up. That man who never challenges his supervisor’s bullying? He’s on a zero-hours contract and can’t risk losing the work.

Since choosing to take redundancy from an iron-clad, secure public sector job some years ago, I’ve found myself on various rungs of this employment ladder, very few of them secure, and some downright precarious.

Take it from me: standing up, speaking up and asking for respect and equality can, in some cases, mean that you’re signing your own death warrant in employment terms.

But those who take a stand often find the law on their side. Shortly after Denise Brewster’s victory, the Court of Appeal backed Gary Smith, a self-employed London plumber who claimed he was entitled to basic employee rights, like paid holidays, because he’d worked solely for one company for six years.

It’s one of several legal cases – including those involving Uber and Deliveroo – which have turned the spotlight on the so-called “gig economy” in which at least five million of us are now working in some capacity.

The employment market, as the song says, takes every kind of people. But we’ve all got rights. And we’re all entitled to equality.

• To read our Equality issue – supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland – go to http://eepurl.com/cDo47P

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