Belgium: Attacks on jobs and wages threaten women’s gains

Thousands marched through Brussels on 6 March to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The PSL/LSP had a lively contingent on the demo, called by the Movement of the World March for Women, leafleting and selling over 60 copies of the PSL/LSP’s papers (in both French and Flemish). We carry here an article by Anja Deschoemacker, national women’s organiser of PSL/LSP, about Belgium women workers’ struggle to defend their jobs.

On Tuesday 23rd of February, the supermarket chain Carrefour announced the closure of 21 supermarkets in Belgium, causing 1,672 job losses. Another set of supermarkets will be sold, with serious implications for the wages and working conditions of the remaining personnel. The supermarkets remaining in the hands of Carrefour will be transferred, causing severe wage cuts. Wages will be frozen for several years, including indexation, which is illegal. It is symptomatic of what has been going on for over 20 years: relatively stable and well paid jobs get lost, to be replaced by temporary contracts and low wage jobs. Now the bosses use the economic crisis to accelerate that process. The impact on working women’s lives is already huge and growing.

World March for Women

The television news that day showed painful images of the workers in one branch threatened with closure. As it was an old branch many of the workers, the majority women, were past their forties. One woman expressed a feeling that was very much present: “I’m too young for a pre-pension, too old to find a new job”. Many of these women had already past the time when they work less or stop working temporarily to take care of their children. Their last 15-20 years before pension should have served to get closer to a more or less complete pension. If these job losses are not stopped, most of them will only be able to find short term and low paid work.

In fact, as several labour market experts and academics have already pointed out, since 1974 there’s been no increase at all in the number of available jobs, that is if you count in full time equivalents. The rising number of people working has been due to the constantly growing number of part time jobs and the creation of such part time and low paid jobs in the “public sector”. These are mainly not oin stable public sector jobs –any rises in some public services and administration jobs were largely compensated with heavy job losses in postal services, public transport, communal services, etc – but in state subsidized low paid part time jobs, not meant to pay the personnel a living wage, but a “little extra” on top of unemployment (or other) benefits or on top of another income in the family. These “extras” in the family income are necessary to maintain some of the living standards one income used to ensure: housing, a car, a family holiday. For single women and definitely for single mothers these “jobs” mean that they hover on or under the poverty line, even when they have got a job.

Thousands marched through Brussels on 6 March to celebrate International Women’s Day

44.2% of female workers work part time. The main reason given for this in studies and opinion polls is the need to combine jobs in the present day flexible job market with their family life. These polls also show that only 10.5% of these part time working women don’t want to work full time – finding a full time job is hard as it is, finding one that combines with school hours often is practically impossible.

After continuous rise in underemployment now a sharp rise in unemployment

When the crisis started hitting Belgium, it hit first of all in industry and construction, making mostly male workers redundant. In the third quarter of 2008 male unemployment went up with 7.2 % against a 3.8 % rise for female unemployment. This did not mean women did not lose their jobs in the many restructurings, amongst others in the textile sector. It just meant that this was compensated more than in the case of male workers losing their job by the creation of “small jobs”.

One of these schemes is called “service cheques”, where users can buy cheques of 1 hour work time at very low prices (as the state pays almost half of the wages). In February 2009 already 84,762 women worked in this scheme compared to 1,696 men. It is mainly used to pay for household chores and in the best case offers half time employment to the workers involved. It was set up to combat undeclared work, but very soon cleaning companies for instance transferred their personnel from regular contracts to this scheme, not only causing wage loss, but also much lower contributions to social security, which will mean that these workers will only get a minimum state pension. Today amongst new pensioners (workers) 4% of men get a pension of less than 750 euro a month. For women that increases to 35%.

PSL/LSP had a lively contingent on the demo and sold over 60 copies of the PSL/LSP’s papers

Now figures for the third quarter of 2009 show for the first time since the onset of the crisis that women’s unemployment is rising faster than men’s. In July/September 2009 the number of unemployed rose with 39000: 31000 women and 8000 men. It is the expression of more and more job losses in commercial services.

This situation will only worsen when the last pillar of job creation gets attacked – jobs largely paid for by the state that is – both regular jobs (however mostly low-paid) in the non-profit sector as all sorts of schemes as service cheques or “welcome mothers” (pseudo-independent baby minders inviting a number of children in their house, not receiving wages from the service organisations they work for, but a fee per child). These “welcome mothers” have gone on strike in the last weeks to demand a workers’ statute, which would give them a more stable income and a build up of social security rights.

These state subsidized jobs, as well as regular jobs in public services and the administration will come under heavy attack once the government thinks the time is right to stop its crisis measures and start making the workers pay off the continually rising state debt. In the eighties and nineties, when lowering state debt was the main objective for the government, helped by the European Maastricht norms, the bourgeoisie succeeded in driving the purchasing power of wages down to a point that now two wages per family are necessary to maintain the living standards people were used to.

Now the government is not only waiting till there is new economic growth, she is also too unstable to go in direct confrontation with the working class. Preparations are being made however to go over, if votes allow for it, to a government of national unity after the federal elections of 2011, preparing for a “new social pact” [referring to the social pact between the workers’ and bosses’ organisations and the government after the second world war, which laid the building blocks of our social security system]. Only massive resistance of the organised working class will be able to stop the onslaught. The need to break the links of the two major trade unions to respectively the social democratic and Christian democratic parties will impose itself ever more.

Since the fifties and sixties the percentage of women taking on paid work has grown consistently. The growth of part time work in the eighties and nineties meant that this development could continue, however at the price of a degradation of wages and contracts. Low and insecure wages (women are faced with temporary contracts twice as often as men) and a high cost of living,[not least the cost of housing, which is one of the main reasons for poverty in Belgium], mean that having a job does not amount to financial independence or financial security. In fact a great survey into costs of housing arrived at the conclusion that women’s best strategy against poverty is having a male breadwinner around.

Women from the immigrant communities get an even harder deal

Since 2007 the federal government has published a yearly “wage gap report” to examine the wage gap between men and women. The last wage gap report (2009) describes the painful reality of non-EU immigrants on the Belgian labour market. The (official) employment figure for workers with a non-EU nationality is only 52% for men, going down to only 25% for women. The report concludes that the gender gap is largely intensified by the “ethnic gap”. This is necessary information to correctly estimate the hypocrisy of the main bourgeois parties, social democracy included, around the question of the Islamic veil in schools and work places. Claiming their interest is in “women’s emancipation in the Muslim community”, at the same time Muslim women, also those who have Belgian nationality, face hard discrimination in finding a job.

In the beginning of this school year a ban on the Islamic veil in one of the last schools in Antwerp where the veil wasn’t banned before has lead to a decision of the Flemish community school council to ban all religious signs from next school year onwards. In Antwerp also the umbrella of catholic schools has followed that line of thinking. This provoked discussion and similar proposals in the umbrella of French speaking community education, but a decision hasn’t been taken yet. In the province of Hainaut though a ban on the Islamic veil is imposed in the provincial schools and in cities like Brussels most general education schools have one by one already imposed a ban. If girls from the Muslim communities decide to wear a veil, they more often decide immediately also to go to underfinanced and overcrowded technical and professional schools.

This question was combined with an enormous media attack on the Muslim community. It represented the majority of Muslims as followers of Taliban style ideas about women, abusing classic feminist ideas in this racist attack. Not a word however about the huge unemployment and the dreadful wages and contracts offered to people from the immigrant communities. Not a word about the endemic discrimination on the labour and housing market, forcing people from immigrant communities to rely on their communities for jobs and housing.

Our party, LSP/PSL, has been present at protests against the ban on the Islamic veil in schools. On our website and in leaflets we have defended a position of pro-choice – against the banning of the Islamic veil in schools and work places, against imposing the veil – bringing to the front also the question of economic independence as the main basis for any women’s emancipation. We put forward demands such as a student wage to ensure education for girls even if their families object, the need for more social housing so young women can take independent decisions without being scared of ending up on the streets when breaking with their family traditions, and obviously the need for free and good quality education for all. These are key demands if one is serious about women’s emancipation. For the main bourgeois parties however the argument of women’s emancipation is just a fallacy for deviating attention from the social situation which is worsening every day.

LSP/PSL contingent

Now the discussion on the Islamic veil has gone into the background, only to be replaced however with a new media attack on the immigrant youth on the question of security and delinquency in the poorest neighbourhoods of Brussels. As in the Islamic veil debate also the official left – social democracy and the green parties – is now calling for “solutions” such as zero-tolerance and imposing “our western values”. As if the problem of delinquency and vandalism is not linked to the fact that 35% of the Brussels youth is unemployed. In some Brussels neighbourhoods the unemployment of immigrant youth rises to an incredible 70%!

We are now campaigning and trying to find partners among the trade union youth organisations to organise local youth marches, including in Brussels. In these campaigns general demands like the 32-hour work week without loss of pay have to be combined with demands for an end to discrimination on the labour market for women and immigrants.

World March of Women and the need for a socialist program

The main work of our women’s commission in 2009 was the working out of a new pamphlet (in Dutch and French) “a socialist anti crisis program for women workers”. This is the programme we are defending in our mobilisation for the national demonstration on the 6th of March in the cadre of the World March of Women. The WMW brings forward demands on four major questions for women: economic independence, war, domestic violence and access to basic services. In Belgium the platform consists of the major trade unions, the umbrellas of national and regional women’s organisations, a whole list of women’s groups of immigrant communities, NGO’s and neighbourhood committees. On the demonstration we will defend the need for a socialist programme to make any fundamental progress in all of these issues.

This mobilisation will take place a week and a half after the dramatic announcement of the Carrefour job losses. Undoubtedly this will have an impact on the demonstration comparable to the impact of the Generation Pact struggle on the last WMW demonstration in Belgium (October 2005), with the demonstration bringing forward combative demands on wages and work conditions, on pensions and on public services. The idea that women workers – just as male workers – should not be the ones paying for the crisis caused by the bosses should be the central slogan.

In our interventions on the picket lines of Carrefour we put forward the main idea that the workers from Bayer and Inbev have proved in the last weeks that workers are not forced to accept the bosses’ attempts to use the economic crisis to minimise even further their labour costs. A determined struggle can force them to back off. It is clear that the workers of Carrefour have the support of public opinion and of the clients of Carrefour. The workers from other supermarket chains know that if the Carrefour management can impose its plan their jobs, wages and working conditions will be put in question also. What is needed is a strategy to win.

We defend the idea of a well organized national strike and demonstration, taking a month or even six weeks to maximize the mobilization, building support also among customers and workers in other supermarkets. A massive demonstration of solidarity with the Carrefour personnel is possible, but also necessary to make the management of Carrefour back off. This is a discussion we want to have on the women’s demonstration.

Our leaflet to mobilize for the demonstration concludes:

“The only way to counter the poverty of women is the creation of sufficient employment, amongst others in public services as health care, education and child care, housing, help in the household chores. The jobs created should be full time jobs with a good statute and decent wages. A shorter working week without loss of pay and with compensatory recruitment should be a first step in distributing the available jobs among the available work forces and offer a livable work pressure to working people, definitely working mothers with a double task. A drastic rise of all replacement benefits for those who cannot work and the transformation of all uncertain, part time and badly paid jobs to full time jobs with a general minimum wage of 1500 euro net are the kind of demands that are necessary to get to any sensible change.

“Economic independence is also the best protection against domestic violence. The thousands of women confronted with domestic violence are largely left in the lurch by the government. The already too limited social guidance hits at the wall of the shortage of jobs that permit women to live independently, a shortage of affordable housing, shortages in all sectors of care. Only investment in all these fields will offer protection to women.

“To get to a situation of peace in the world, we have to take on the causes of wars, which are fought for control over raw materials and territories and for the redistribution of the shortages that are present at every level. Taking the most important means of production into the hands of the working class on a worldwide level, would mean that decisions are no longer made based on greed, but on the needs of the majority of the population. This is the only way to permanently stop the worldwide massacres.”

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March 2010