'This government is actively anti-women'
Unite national officer Siobhan Endean: On International Women’s Day, let’s organise to hold this government to account
It couldn’t be clearer. The Tories are completely out of touch with the realities for women of the impact of the pandemic and have failed them at every turn. In fact, we need to recognise that this government is actively anti-women.
Women workers bore the brunt of austerity, long before the coronavirus crisis.
Working long hours — and many more years since their pensions were stolen — with little or no job security, often juggling multiple low-paid, part-time and zero-hours jobs with childcare and elder care, while still forced to rely on universal credit (UC).
Covid-19 has exposed not just the deep wealth divide in this country, but just how inadequate are the rights and protections workers have in this country, with women and BAEM workers hit hardest and most vulnerable to poverty.
Women, and BAEM women especially, have been on the front line of the pandemic, putting their own health at risk while caring for our elderly and our sick, cleaning our hospitals and schools, feeding our children, stocking our supermarket shelves, staffing checkouts and keeping our communities working and safe.
Policies that supercharge inequalities hit women and families hardest, which we see in the impact of the five-week wait for UC, which plunges claimants into instant poverty and forces them to turn to foodbanks.
But this government is making deliberate choices, and so, inevitably, women were badly let down by last week’s Budget.
After all that clapping, far from recognising the contribution these workers have made and the value society places on them by giving them a proper pay rise, the Chancellor didn’t so much as mention low-paid key workers or their pay.
Their pay remains frozen — a cut in real terms. As for the slap in the face delivered to NHS workers, the Tories’ attempts to pit them against the hard-done-by private sector in their efforts to justify their insulting 1 per cent pay increase won’t wash with the public, who have seen the incredible sacrifices they have made to save lives.
As well as being undervalued as front-line workers, the Covid crisis has particularly affected women in the form of job losses, maternity and pregnancy discrimination, unsafe working practices, the dangerous isolation of lockdown, and working from home with often sole responsibility for childcare and home schooling, the increased risk of domestic abuse, including financial abuse, and serious problems for migrant women workers.
Rishi Sunak was silent too on sick pay, social care, childcare services and domestic violence charities, all of which need significantly increased funding and reach if they are to support vulnerable women.
Of course, we cannot be surprised. These are conscious, ideological acts from a government whose first act of the first lockdown was to drop the requirement on employers to report on the gender pay gap, interfering with accurately measuring the true impact of the pandemic on women’s jobs and pay, as well as removing the benchmark and the momentum. And it is a government which cut the international aid budget at a time when global solidarity is so critically important.
Sunak may have reluctantly tacked on a few extra months to furlough, but he’s failed to fix the scheme to ensure no worker is paid below minimum wage or to fix it for women.
Our own Unite analysis has found that mothers have been 47 per cent more likely to lose their jobs than fathers, more likely to be furloughed and more than 50 per cent more likely to have their hours cut.
But, of course, the Chancellor hasn’t recognised the need to equality impact assess the Job Retention Scheme, including with reference to maternity rights and the isolation of pregnant women and new mothers as a result of the economic uncertainty caused by the virus, or to extend protection from redundancy to them.
In fact, there’s been no equality impact assessment of any part of the government’s Covid strategy, let alone the Budget.
Unite’s priorities throughout this crisis have been to protect our members’ safety, jobs and incomes.
The unequal impact of the pandemic on women has framed our key demands to deliver on that call.
In order to meet these priorities, we’ve produced advice, information and campaign actions to help our reps in the support they are providing our women members in the absence of the state and legislative protections that they need.
Decades of stripping away the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety Executive of their enforcement powers has also left women with little or no access to justice.
Our recommended actions include the need for reps to use workplace equality impact assessments as an essential tool to negotiate changes to working practices, particularly home-working policies, redundancies, working hours, fair pay and conditions and campaigning to make them mandatory.
The role of union health and safety and equality reps is central to this happening and we urgently need to encourage more women in these positions during these turbulent times.
On this International Women’s Day, women trade unionists should be leading union negotiations for a fair pay rise and organising industrial action to resist the government’s detested key worker pay freeze.
We must organise to hold this government to account and demand a strategy that reflects the priorities of working-class women.
By Siobhan Endean, Unite national officer for women
This comment first appeared in the Morning Star on March 8