SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 127 - April 2009

Women in the recession

Lower pay & more job losses

THE CURRENT economic crisis is an ‘equal opportunities recession’, according to Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC. This appears in a recent TUC report, Women and Recession.

The banking crisis and credit crunch have affected all sectors of the economy from manufacturing, building and the car industry to retail, banking and finance and the service industries. Woolworth’s went under before Christmas with the loss of 30,000 overwhelmingly women’s jobs, followed by many other high street names such as Principles and Barretts. Marks and Spencer recently announced that it is closing 27 stores and losing office staff. The Confederation of British Industry reports that nearly half of all retailers cut jobs in January. Most of those affected are women workers.

The latest official employment statistics show that the number of women in full-time work fell by 53,000 in the last quarter, compared with a fall of 36,000 for men. It means that women are losing full-time jobs at twice the rate of men because, although women make up around half of the total workforce, when only full-time work is counted, men still outnumber women significantly.

Women who work part time (around half of all women who work) may not feature in the official statistics as, being concentrated in low-paid jobs, and with a work history interrupted by caring responsibilities, they are less likely to qualify for Job Seekers Allowance so may not ‘sign on’. They are also less likely to have savings or pensions so face poverty very quickly.

Any economic crisis will have a disproportionate affect on the poorest sections of society. The affect on women worldwide will be devastating. According to the Women’s TUC website, women and their children account for almost three-quarters of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty worldwide. The capitalist system was incapable of providing even basics such as clean water, shelter and food to millions during the ‘good’ years. Now it will expect even the poorest in the ‘developing world’ to pay for its crisis. Daughters will be pulled out of school when families cannot afford the fees as their education is often seen as less important. Four out of five workers in export manufacturing in the third world are women and they will be thrown out of work as people in the west buy less. In countries where there is little or no safety net, increasing numbers of women may be forced to turn to prostitution to feed themselves and their families. This brings with it the risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual violence.

In the advanced industrial countries of Europe such rights as have been won in the past through pressure from the organised working class – for maternity rights, paid maternity and paternity leave, parental leave and childcare – will be under attack as too expensive and bad for business ‘in these difficult times’. Past experience of the 1980s recession showed that closing a nursery can be the easiest way of getting rid of women workers without paying redundancy money. Already in Britain 30,000 women a year are sacked for being pregnant, even though this is illegal. This situation is likely to get worse as employers look to cut costs and may see pregnant women and mothers as unproductive workers.

Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business since October 2008, has ordered a review of all policies in the pipeline which he feels may be burdensome to business – including the proposed extension of the right to flexitime from parents of children under six to all those with children up to 16, and the proposal to extend paid maternity leave from 39 to 52 weeks. It is outrageous that even these limited reforms (slightly less ‘generous’ than current Tory policy), which would have gone some way to ease financial and family pressures on working parents, and working mothers in particular, may be sacrificed on the say so of someone who, with his inflated salary and EU pension, is so burdensome to the tax payer.

Equal pay is also likely to drop even further down the government’s list of priorities. The Equalities Bill, due to become law later this year, fails to impose a duty on private companies even to carry out a pay audit to find out if their women workers are being paid less than male equivalent workers, never mind do anything about this. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), unlike its predecessor the Equal Opportunities Commission, is not calling for compulsory pay audits, its chief executive stating that ‘I think we do need to be realistic about the economic climate’. The EHRC calls for a new equal pay act but that this would be a ‘long-term exercise, requiring several years of work’. It is now nearly 40 years since the Equal Pay Act. How much longer are we supposed to wait?

In any case, legislation is only part of the answer. This is clear from the debacle of ‘single status’ in local government, where the government imposed a duty to implement equal pay and conditions, but no extra money to do this. In the absence of a nationwide fight from the public-sector union, UNISON, many local authorities have imposed pay cuts on one section of workers – often male, but not always – or cut services, in order to implement equal pay. Where a lead was given, for example in Greenwich, where the branch secretary is a Socialist Party member, the local authority was forced to back down.

We do not want to share out the misery. It is vital that the trade unions in the public and private sectors refuse to allow one set of workers to be played off against another. The government has spent £550 billion on bailing out the banks, and we should demand the estimated £5 billion that is needed to fund equal pay in local government.

The Financial Times reports that local councils in England have axed about 10,000 jobs, with 70% expecting further losses due to the recession. Cuts in social services, health services and local government affect women especially, as workers, but also because they will be expected to take up the slack as carers in the home. Traditional gender roles, reinforced under capitalism, are used to excuse low pay and casual work for women because their ‘primary role’ is bringing up the family and ‘keeping house’.

The Tory government under Margaret Thatcher during the recession of the early 1980s said ‘there is no such thing as society, only individual families’. This was used to justify cuts and hospital closures, blaming the social problems they had created by their economic policies on the ‘breakdown’ of the family. Now, as then, women are likely to be at the forefront of community campaigns and trade union struggles against cuts.

Since the 1980s there are far more women in work. Women now account for around half of the total workforce. Over half of women with children under five work, compared to around a third in 1980. Nearly three quarters of mothers of children between five and ten work. There have been changes in the family, too. Women are much more likely to be the breadwinner than 25 years ago. One quarter of families are now headed by a lone parent (90% of these being women). Even in two-parent families, women’s income makes up a significant proportion of the family income – over half in 21% of families. However, women will effectively be forced back into the home through unemployment.

Some better-paid women may be happy to downshift to part time work or take a sabbatical for a few months. But this is not a realistic option for most working-class women as they are so low paid to start with. Every parent (not just mothers) should have a genuine choice whether to stay at home full-time with their children and benefits for children should reflect the real cost of bringing them up. However, they should also have access to work outside the home and affordable, genuinely flexible, high quality childcare. New Labour’s mantra that work is the route out of poverty, and especially its attempt to force lone parents off income support when their youngest child is aged seven, is looking increasingly out of step with reality when there are two million unemployed already.

Already, public-sector workers, the majority of them women, have been protesting against massive cuts by Nottingham city council, on the Wirral, in Greenwich and other areas. Thousands marched on the 28 March demonstration organised by the TUC, along with other groups, to send a message to the G20 leaders: ‘We will not pay for your crisis’. One of the slogans of the march was, ‘No going back to business as usual’. Yet this is exactly what the three major political parties want to get back to. Capitalism can only offer inequality and insecurity to the vast majority of women, even at its ‘best’. We need a real alternative of a socialist society.

Eleanor Donne


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