Women and covid in Tory-run Britain

Thousands have viewed the International Women's Day rally, hosted by the Socialist Party and the international socialist organisation to which the SP is affiliated - the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

On International Women’s Day socialists salute the struggles undertaken by working-class women, both past and present, we also prepare for future struggles.

We salute the 1917 heroic struggle of women textile strikers from the working-class Vyborg district of St Petersburg. These women joined what had been a more genteel International Women’s Day demonstration, which had included “ladies from society”. Once the Vyborg women arrived the mood changed. Calls for “Bread” “Down with the war!” and “Down with the Tsar!” began to dominate. It was their unofficial strike that marked the start of the Russian Revolution.

We pay tribute to the Glasgow uprising of women in 2018/19 fighting for equal pay, where low paid women highlighted the power of the working-class. Their strike inspired solidarity action from mainly male refuse workers and won half a billion pounds in unpaid wages. It was even recognised by the BBC as “one of the biggest ever strikes in the UK on the issue of low pay”.

And just last year socialists applauded women in Belarus who had been derided by Lukashenko, the so-called “strong-man” president, who had told them a woman’s place was in the kitchen. These fearless women responded by going onto demonstrations to protect men who were under attack from vicious police. This included women pulling balaclavas off masked security officers from the feared KGB, and thereby exposing their identities.

For socialists, alongside commemorating these struggles of working-class women, we prepare for future mighty developments, which are clearly in the pipeline. Including the current groundswell of anger erupting on social media against this rotten Tory government’s measly 1% pay offer for NHS staff. Prime Minister Boris Johnson & co had the audacity to clap for nurses, who have put their lives at risk during this pandemic, a growing number of nurses are now contemplating strike action as a result of this derisory offer.

And, of course, Covid has laid bare all the grotesque inequalities of capitalism.

On a world scale, according to Oxfam, during the pandemic the ten richest billionaires, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, have collectively seen their wealth increase by an eye-watering $540 billion. Meanwhile, just 3 weeks into the first lock-down last year, 1½ million people across Britain had to go without food for a full day because they had no money.

After the economic crash of 2008 investment banker Goldman Sachs were referred to as “ a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”, now mega-billionaires such as Bezos are playing a similar role during this pandemic, squeezing workers across the planet dry in order to line their own pockets.

Amidst this growing class inequality, you don’t need to look far to see how Covid has hugely impacted on the lives of women, particularly working-class women. The jobs we do, our pay and conditions, the services we rely on, have all come under unrelenting vicious attacks.

Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak may thank “mums” for juggling childcare and work during the lockdown, but any “mum” hoping for help from last week’s Tory pro-billionaires budget will be sorely disappointed. They’re preparing to make the working class pay for the billions of pandemic spending. Pre-existing gender inequality means women will be at the sharp end of that.

There’s an expectation from Sunak and his ilk in the Tory party that it will be women caring for children and others in the family who take up the slack for cuts to services etc. Sunak’s response has underscored women’s subordinate position, both in the workplace and in society generally.

And let’s not forget, in the past, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has claimed children of working mothers were ‘more likely to mug you’.

Unequal burden

The idea that within the family childcare is fundamentally still a woman’s role still lingers. This is illustrated by a survey from University College London which reports that during lock-down women spent more than twice as much as men on their children’s home-schooling. So, amongst parents of primary school children mothers spent an average of 5 hours/day, while fathers spent just 2 hours.

In the workplace, the role played by women is also often also seen as subordinate to that of men, and Covid has exacerbated this trait. During the course of the pandemic, women have seen their earnings reduced by 12.9%, almost double the decline of men’s, leading to headlines about a “she-cession” rather than a recession.

Additionally, the Fawcett Society report that 77% of the workforce who are at high risk of exposure to Covid are women. They also make up 6 out of every 10 key workers. This is alongside the reality of 39% of working mothers being key workers, including nurses and carers, who, because they work with people with diseases and infections, are particularly at risk.

From the onset of this pandemic, it was clear in care homes that Boris Johnson’s government was prepared to throw both workers and residents to the wolves. There was a complete lack of government strategy to ensure Covid was being properly ‘tracked and traced’, alongside shortages of PPE, sanitiser etc. And let’s not forget the Tories attempted to blame the lack of supplies within the NHS on nurses and others saying they were overusing the PPE!

Profiting

Whilst NHS and careworkers were battling this virus, the profiteers were licking their lips. In November last year, the BBC reported that the cost for essential medical equipment, compared to 2019, had been hiked by £10 billion. The price of body bags skyrocketed by 1,310%. For capitalists, shortages are very useful. We see shortages, they see profit opportunities!

Working women also face health and safety issues in other key workplaces. According to the government’s own data, the most frequent location for exposure to Covid is supermarkets. The workers – predominantly female – have played a vital role in keeping them open during the course of the pandemic. For many who are on zero-hour contracts, in low paid jobs etc., it becomes a real worry if they are ill, as they do not have the means to self-isolate.

The Trades Union Congress reports that the average worker loses £863 per fortnight if they are on sick pay. However, seventy per cent of people who aren’t eligible for Statutory Sick Pay are women. This means that swathes of women, including many working in care homes, supermarkets etc., have to choose between two bad options. Either, in order to pay the bills, they go to work – risking spreading the virus. Or, stay at home, risking hunger for themselves and their children and homelessness through inability to pay rent, bills etc..

Hunger

Even amidst a pandemic, it is a disgrace that in the 21st century, in a developed capitalist country, the scourge of hunger is such a huge problem. Data from the Independent Food Aid Network showed that from February to October last year there was an 88% rise from the previous year in the number of food parcels being distributed. Even before the pandemic, a survey commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust in 2019 found that almost half of young mothers, aged 18 -30, skipped meals in order to feed their children.

In January this year, there was a public outcry, and Johnson was forced to admit the contents of free school meal parcels were a disgrace. The food parcels, which included items such as coin-bags filled with tuna, out-of-date bagels and tomatoes cut in half, created a momentous backlash on social media. The bosses from the company, Chartwells, included a Tory donor for the likes of Johnson. It really should be the case that by your friends you should be known. Little wonder swathes of young mothers are being forced to skip meals.

The pandemic has pushed a growing number of women into unemployment, thereby exacerbating poverty. A study by economists from the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported in May last year that mothers were paying a heavy price for lockdown, and they were 47% more likely to permanently lose their job, or be forced to quit. Many of these job losses are occurring in the hospitality and retail sector, which are dominated by female workers.

Pregnancy

According to the campaign group, ‘Pregnant then Screwed’, during the pandemic, pregnant women are being forced into taking sick leave or to start their maternity leave early. Prior to Covid, a legal advice line run by the campaign group for pregnant women facing discrimination received around 3,000 calls a year. In the last year, in the midst of the pandemic, that figure sky-rocketed to 32,000 calls.

Pregnant women have also flagged up fears about their safety, worried that they are being asked to work in dangerous situations where they could contract Covid. In May last year ‘Pregnant then Screwed’ conducted research of around 2,600 pregnant workers and found around a quarter of those working in the NHS were caring for Covid patients. Among black, Asian and minority ethnic women, it was nearly a third.

Alongside facing discrimination at work, women are also faced with bias when being furloughed. Economists from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich found that “not all workers are furloughed equally”. While three-quarters of furloughed men had their wages topped up beyond the 80% provided by the government, less than two-thirds (65%) of women had this financial top-up.

Even before this pandemic women were at a financial disadvantage. And all the indicators are pointing towards this gap, yet again, widening. TUC general secretary, Francis O’Grady, pointed out, “Working women have led the fight against Coronavirus, but millions of them are stuck in low paid and insecure jobs.” She also made the rallying call “We need a reckoning on how we value and reward women’s work”.

Fine words from a woman in an important position within the trade union movement. Certainly, the likes of the Fawcett Society argue we need more women in positions of power. However, fine words butter no parsnips, as they say! When O’Grady made a similar statement about the attacks on living standards of both working-class men and women, she did not argue for a campaign of mass action; her rallying cry then was – we should write to our MPs!

Many workers, both women and men, were sickened when, last September, O’Grady, alongside the director-general of the CBI (bosses’ club), flanked Tory chancellor, Sunak when he announced the Tories watered-down job retention scheme. No thanks to O’Grady, the Tories were forced into a U-turn because of yet another backlash of anger.

Bourgeois feminists argue we need more women in power, but the stance of O’Grady highlights for socialists that the issue is not whether a trade union leader is male or female, but in whose interest they are fighting. That being said, it is imperative we encourage women to get involved in their unions and ensure any impediments to this happening are removed. The Glasgow strike shows what is possible when the collective potential power of the working class is mobilised.

Violence

Covid has also lifted the lid on the issue of domestic violence. Last year, as the initial lockdown came into force, the police reported receiving phone calls about domestic disturbances about every 30 seconds. Although abuse can happen to anyone, women are still three times more likely to experience violence and harassment than men.

The broadcaster, Victoria Derbyshire, who herself grew up in a household with a violent father, hosted a ‘Panorama’ programme that looked at the impact of lockdown on women living with abusive partners – it was chilling to watch.

One woman interviewed by Derbyshire revealed that on the night Boris Johnson announced the initial lockdown, her husband turned to her and said, “Let the games begin!”. He told her she was in for a rough ride, then over a period of 4 or 5 days raped her over 100 times.

Almost two-thirds of women in abusive relationships said the violence got worse as a result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Even prior to the pandemic women, and men, facing domestic violence struggled to find help due to cuts in Domestic Violence services and refuges.

Over the past decade, successive Tory governments have cut back to the bone the number of refuges and services available for women experiencing domestic violence. The money offered now is a drop in the ocean.

Labour

Whilst it is absolutely correct to highlight the cold cruelty of the Tories and their completely inadequate responses, it is also necessary to look at the woeful role of Labour councils across the UK.

Since the economic crash of 2008, Labour councils have not been prepared to stand up and fight against the cuts, instead choosing to do the Tories’ dirty work for them. Alongside cutting vital services for women wanting to flee domestic violence, Labour councils have been instrumental in closing libraries, leisure centres, services for disabled people etc. Had they refused to vote these cuts through, they could have been part of building a movement to kick out the Tories.

For socialists, this cannot be accepted. Working-class women need a political voice that represents the interests of our class, not austerity, which is basically a transfer of wealth from us to the bosses. The task of building new mass workers’ parties is central to the fight for women not to pay the Covid austerity price.

Many working class women can be attracted to TUSC (Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition) who are standing in elections this May in order to make a stand against cuts and to begin fighting to restore much-needed services. The Socialist Party, alongside the RMT transport union, is a constituent part of TUSC.

Future

As we hopefully begin to emerge from this pandemic, the mess left by the thoroughly incompetent Johnson-led government will need to be rectified. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories will do everything possible to ensure it is the working-class who pay the price of the pandemic.

Already we have seen the preparedness of women to fearlessly step-up and campaign for their rights.

Trade unions such as the National Education Union have shown a lead. The NEU forced the government into yet another U-turn in January, in order to delay the unsafe re-opening of schools. It was a beacon for those wanting to fight back. Alongside joining combative unions, droves of women have stepped up to become active in their union.

In the next period, it is imperative that as women we do not allow ourselves to be further sidelined. Ultimately, if we want to achieve real liberation, we need a united struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

Working-class women, men and young people must collectively join forces and fight against the rotten, profit-hungry system of capitalism. Only with such a collective struggle for socialism can we begin to achieve real liberation for the whole of humanity.

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