Britain: Women on the frontline

Fighting austerity

With just 20% of the planned cuts to public services implemented, the government’s austerity programme has already had a devastating impact on working-class communities. A mass of evidence shows that women have been disproportionately hit by the decline in public services, cuts in welfare benefits and job losses as the economy enters a triple dip. JANE JAMES looks at what this means for the social gains achieved by women over the past 60 years.

A STAGGERING ONE in five women in the UK lives in poverty. The idea that we are all in this recession together is not accepted by the majority of workers. They can see the bankers and billionaires increase their wealth at a sickening rate while vital services are starved of funds, the benefits of the poor and vulnerable are cut and the number of working poor increases. Low-paid, part-time and temporary jobs are replacing better-paid and more secure full-time employment.

The government is making sure that ordinary people are paying for the mess that capitalism is in, while ensuring that the rich do not suffer. The cabinet of millionaires may deny that it has any strategy to undermine the status and rights of women acquired over the last few decades, but its austerity programme could not have been better designed to push women back into domestic servitude. The creation of the welfare state and the expansion of the public sector following the second world war underpinned the huge social advance for women in terms of jobs, greater income equality, and assistance with women’s ‘traditional role’ of caring for family members.

The autumn financial statement is set to add misery to the four years of hardship experienced by workers since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Working-class women are bearing the brunt of measures targeted at the poor, the vulnerable and workers struggling to make ends meet in the worst economic crisis for 80 years. Attacks on benefits, cuts in public services, and increases in unemployment and underemployment have been felt most harshly by women workers, and threaten to drive them back into the home.

Benefit cuts

THE WOMEN’S BUDGET Group (WBG) described chancellor George Osborne’s financial statement as another blow to women’s rights and gender equality. Given that benefits make up one-fifth of women’s income, compared to a tenth of men’s, Osborne’s refusal to mitigate the adverse impact on gender equality commits millions of women to increasing hardship. Already, according to research by the Fawcett Society, of the £14.9 billion of cuts made to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions since 2010, 74% has been taken from women’s incomes.

The recent announcement by Osborne that most working-age benefits and tax credits will be up-rated by just 1% over the next three years from April 2013 means, with inflation running at 2.7%, an effective cut in income for the poorest sections of society. This cruel measure does not only hit the mislabelled ‘shirkers’, the vast majority of unemployed people desperately struggling to find work, or those with disabilities at the mercy of companies like Atos Healthcare, which the government has contracted to get half-a-million people off disability benefits. It also affects millions who toil long hours for poverty pay making them increasingly reliant on tax credits and housing and council tax benefits to survive. Most of these low-paid workers are women providing care for children and grandchildren, and for elderly and disabled relatives.

Scandalously, the 1% cap on benefit increases includes statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance. Maternity payments should not even be treated as social security benefits. Legal rights to maternity leave and pay were enacted as part of health and safety law to protect pregnant women and to ensure that new mothers were not financially dis-incentivised into taking sufficient time off away from work to recover from the birth, to be able to breastfeed and bond with their baby.

The Fawcett Society has correctly pointed out that the Con-Dems’ treatment of maternity pay could deter millions of working-class women from taking their full maternity leave. With many families already struggling financially this latest attack could see many women being forced to return to work earlier than they would like, with potentially serious health implications for them and their babies. Just as worrying, despite discrimination law, about 30,000 women lose their jobs each year after informing their employer of their pregnancy.

This latest effective cut to maternity pay comes on top of the scrapping of the health in pregnancy grant in January 2011. This had provided a one-off payment of £190 to all pregnant women. The Sure Start maternity grant was also axed in April 2011. This was designed to assist out-of-work families with the cost of maternity and baby items.

Going in reverse

ACCORDING TO ESTIMATES made by the House of Commons library, women will pay about two-thirds of the money raised by the latest austerity measures, compared to a third from men. When changes to income tax are also taken into account, women will be hit four times harder than men.

Cumulatively, women are paying over three-quarters of the cost to household income from net direct tax, benefit cuts, and pay and pension changes introduced since June 2010. The painfully slow progress over the last four decades in increasing women’s income to close the pay gap between men and women – women still earn on average 14.9% less than men – is set to go into reverse.

In an attempt to sweeten a very bitter pill, Osborne has stated that the cuts to working-age benefits will raise revenue to fund two tax giveaways: the cancellation of the fuel duty increase and a further rise in personal allowance on income tax. Research by the WBG reveals that such measures favour more men than women. For example, women are less likely to drive cars than men, and are more likely than men to be in part-time or low-paid employment. Among those who do not earn enough to benefit from the increase in personal allowance, 67% are women.

The WBG criticises the government’s strategy to reduce Britain’s debt by cutting spending on benefits and services, which impact more on women, rather than increasing tax revenue, which the WBG claims would be more evenly distributed. As socialists we would not support tax increases for workers. Even on a capitalist basis the financial resources exist to wipe out the country’s debts. The Sunday Times 2012 rich list revealed that the combined wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain increased to £414 billion last year. This was a 5% rise for the class of people who lecture workers on the need to hold down wages – which rose last year, on average, by just 1.7%. Meanwhile, major British companies have £750 billion of cash reserves sitting idle in their bank accounts.

The vital public sector

THE AUSTERITY AXE is falling hardest on the public sector, and therefore women, who make up 65% of the workforce. In local government, at three quarters, their proportion in the workforce is even higher. The impact of job cuts on women has been devastating. Currently at 7.7%, women’s unemployment is at its highest level since 1994. Those women lucky to find alternative employment experience low-paid, part-time or temporary jobs, or pseudo self-employment.

After decades of work many women face the prospect of a raw deal when they retire. The extension of so-called equality in retirement has resulted in the perversion of the retirement age for women being gradually increased from 60 to 65 by November 2018. In retirement, women are more likely to suffer poverty as time out of work due to caring responsibilities means it is more difficult for women to accrue a decent occupational pension. Women retiring this year face an annual retirement income one-third lower than their male counterparts.

All the evidence shows that women rely most on public services in terms of care for children, the disabled and the elderly, roles traditionally done by women. In addition, specific services for women have been targeted for closure. For example, women desperate to flee violent partners are confronted with nowhere to go. The organisation Refuge, which helps women to leave their violent partners, confirms that every one of its services could close leading to women dying. Statistics show that, already, two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence.

Obtaining legal assistance for cases of domestic violence will be more difficult. The legal aid budget is being cut by £350 million a year. With 57% of recipients of legal aid being women, thousands will find themselves without the means to get representation. It has been estimated that 54% of women suffering from domestic violence would not qualify for legal aid.

Rising unemployment and underemployment, cuts in public services and real reductions in the value of benefits have created fertile ground for Cameron’s madcap ‘big society’ idea. Indeed, it is flourishing in the guise of a massive expansion in food banks, with three new outlets opening every week, as charity rapidly replaces state support for the poorest sections of society. Food banks have fed more than 180,000 people since April 2012, including many low-paid workers. Ninety per cent of the food provided comes from public donations.

Research shows that most people, particularly men, are ashamed to go to food banks. It is mainly women who swallow their pride and go, to ensure their children get fed. Some mothers have admitted to rummaging for food in bins. Increasing numbers of women are facing criminal prosecutions for stealing food from supermarkets for their children. Inevitably, both mothers and fathers go without food so their children can be fed.

Government offensive

THE COALITION GOVERNMENT’S attack on the so-called dependency culture is a euphemism for smashing the welfare state and privatising the remaining parts of the public sector. This with the aim of replacing the collective provision of essential services with private services geared to making profits for the already obscenely wealthy.

During the second world war, women had been drafted into the factories as millions of men were conscripted to the battlefields. Once the war ended, most women returned to the home and childcare. However, over the following decades, the development of the welfare state and the expansion of the public sector opened up huge job opportunities for women. At the same time, public services provided assistance with care for children and the elderly, a responsibility that traditionally fell to women.

The current assault on the public sector and welfare state threatens to reverse all the social gains made by workers over the last 65 years. For women, though, this does not merely mean the loss of jobs and vital services. It potentially presages the erosion or removal of the social basis of all the concomitant progressive measures that have freed women from the drudgery of the home and allowed them to play a fuller role in the workplace and wider society. With sexism, prejudice and oppression still widespread, capitalism was never going to be capable of achieving full equality for women. But, unless combatted, the current ideologically driven austerity agenda could set back women’s rights for a generation.

The growing anger of working people towards the Con-Dem coalition government is palpable. Women will come to the fore in the struggle to defend the hard-won gains of the past. That struggle will inevitably pose the question of how best to achieve this. A new generation of workers, women and men, will discover the socialist aspirations of the generation that fought for the creation of the welfare state. This time, however, the whole economy will need to be taken into public ownership in order to plan society’s resources for the benefit of all.

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March 2013