This year, I was invited to speak at an international women’s day event by the sisters of the Cardiff Feminist Network as part of a series of actions which included a Take Back the Night march, a pro-choice rally and then an event in a park in which there was poetry and various speakers addressing a number of topics including feminism, violence against women, the oppression of Palestinian women, and my talk on the impact of austerity on women in Britain. There was food, a wonderful audience of committed feminists taking place in a public park where in effect since there was no license or permission, the group had taken use of public land to have a celebration of International Women’s Day. My talk was kindly taped by a friend and comrade, Nick Hughes, who then posted it on facebook and on then youtube.
The talk was long, not because it was planned that way; but one person who was supposed to speak was late and the food was not ready to be served. So, since I carry around so much information with me when I am planning to speak, I was able to talk for almost a half hour.
So today’s anti-capitalist meetup will actually be like a meetup. That is, we will have a speaker (me), my talk (minus the spontaneous bad jokes and righteous anger) will be here to read. Then we can actually have a discussion on the topic, since the speaker is right here. This was supposed to go up on the 16th of March, but was preempted by the deaths of Bob Crow and Tony Benn which needed to be commemorated. The issues addressed in my piece, unfortunately, are still extremely relevant.
To set the stage, here is the stage. Behind me is the Cardiff National Museum, the event took place in Gorsedd Gardens which lies to the left of the main lawn in front of the City Hall.
Since the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition came into power in Britain, there has been a vicious attack on both the public sector and the social welfare state that is being justified as a response to the “high deficit.”
Austerity is being introduced for two interrelated reasons.
1) First, the low profitability and resulting stagnation following the economic crisis of 2008 has led employers to squeeze wage incomes in order to keep profits up. This is part of a long-term strategy to undermine workers’ incomes and working conditions in the face of continuing profitability problems outside of the financial sector that led to the shift of industry and manufacturing to emerging and peripheral economies;
2) Second, in the long-term, there is a move toward the privatisation of what are seen as potentially profitable parts of the public sector. This is not only being done to open up new areas of profitability for capital; it is also to undermine the last bastion of unionisation in the advanced capitalist world.
Privatization of these services means their being subject to profitability criteria so that in the future they will only be available only to those who can pay. This will affect both the supply of services to the working class and poor, as well as their demand to access them. Given generally lower incomes, services formerly obtained for free will not be demanded any more once they are privatised and thus may not be as profitable as anticipated. In the case of childcare and caring for the sick and elderly, this work will inevitably fall on working class women as part of caring for extended families for which they are still predominately responsible.
The impact of austerity in Britain, both in terms of the assault on the state sector and the attack on the social welfare state, has clearly substantially affected the working class. An ideological offensive based on the distinction between “the deserving and the undeserving poor” has been used as a stick to beat the unemployed in Britain, especially people with disabilities. Insistence that unemployment is voluntary is then linked to a criterion of less(er) eligibility whereby those getting benefits must receive lower incomes than those working to “incentivise people into work.” With general incomes falling, the logic of the argument is that government social welfare benefits must fall as well.
The direct ideological assaults against women as “undeserving” have been limited to the “welfare mother” arguments (e.g., having children to receive housing and child benefits). Only rarely has it been suggested that women are to blame for male unemployment. Generally, the depredations of women are more subtle and tied into women’s traditional roles in the labour market and in the process of social reproduction.
There are several reasons why austerity affects women so strongly:
1) Job losses in the public sector where women’s labour is predominant. 65% of public sector workers are women and almost a quarter of working women are in public sector jobs in Britain. Of the 6,798,000 people who viewed themselves as public sector workers in the second quarter of 2012, 4,439,000 were women and 2,359,000 were men.
It has been recently estimated by Jerome de Henau of the Women’s Budget Group that between the periods of March 2010 – December 2013, job loss in the public sector was at the ratio of 60:40 for men to women. This was not due to selective firing, rather it was due to which parts of the public sector were cut back.
However, men also accounted for 60% of total employment increase over the same period; Women’s unemployment increased by 5% while men’s decreased by 15%. Both have decreased since Dec 2011 but it has been faster for men (14% vs 9%) But both are still 50% higher than pre-crisis levels (41% for men). Although male unemployment is higher (incl. long-term) women are catching up. Share of long term unemployment shot up by 46% for women aged 18-24 (17% for men) and by 28% for women aged 50+ (18% for men), while the latter has decreased since 2011, it kept increasing for women;
2) Second, is the fact that women are more dependent on the social welfare state to top up their incomes;
3) And, third, the British state has historically failed to provide completely for social reproduction, especially in childcare and care for the sick and infirm, disabled people and the elderly.
With incomes falling in the advanced capitalist world as part of the general economic policy since the late 1970s, women face greater threats than men. Women receive lower incomes, lower pensions (due to historically lower incomes), and face the increasing reluctance of the state to support women in the workplace through the provision of childcare and after-school programs or by shouldering caregiver responsibilities for the elderly and disabled people. As the general pattern of work tends more towards increasing underemployment and part-time labour, we are already facing competition from men for part-time jobs we have traditionally held while at the same time benefits decline.
Women face increasing economic insecurity without sufficient state assistance to ensure that our children and families have a decent standard of living provided by our employment. No longer able to depend upon the fact that our low-paid labour is of sufficient value to capitalists, as men also face increasing precariousness in their employment, and in the absence of a strong labour movement and of left-wing movements, men will soon be playing the same role as women, that of an easily intimidated, and therefore, underpaid workforce.
Women’s Labour Market
Women have always worked under capitalism, but our working lives are affected by the primacy of our role in social reproduction. Women’s job choices are also constrained by segregated labour markets and they are trapped in jobs undervalued in the capitalist economic system. This is compounded by the discontinuity of our working lives due to social reproduction responsibilities — childbirth and nursing, child raising, domestic chores, care for the elderly — so that even if we get on an unsegregated job ladder, advancement is difficult due to time taken off to perform carer responsibilities.
While traditional women’s labour is necessary to the society to the society as a whole, its remuneration (that is, our wages) is low in the capitalist economic system as the work is seen as unskilled or low-skilled especially as it relates to social reproduction. This is probably because so much of it is still provided as unpaid labour in the home. Even tasks requiring professional skills, such as nursing and teaching are undervalued as “women’s work.”
Britain’s modern public sector developed after the Second World War and was largely staffed and to a great extent built upon the labour of women workers and immigrants from the British Empire’s former colonies who were overwhelmingly people of colour. The socialization of some traditional women’s work (e.g., education, nursing, social work, caring, cleaning) led to higher representation of female than male workers in the public sector. Women additionally found employment in administration and clerical work in both public and private sectors. The privatisation of potentially more profitable parts of the public sector will have an enormous impact on women as workers due to the wage gap between public and private sector. That is, women’s wages in the public sector from supervisory to unskilled labour are higher due to unionisation and collective bargaining possibilities.
Following the crash of 2008, men initially experienced more layoffs and had higher unemployment rates due to the decline in construction, manufacturing, and finance. Since the introduction of austerity, it is women that have been facing rising unemployment. Part of this is due to cuts in jobs, part of it is due to cuts in child-care benefits which force women out of the work-force as they cannot get the hours and cannot afford child-care and partly it is due to rising male participation in the part-time job sector.
Women’s labour is heavily based in part-time work which is lower-paid due to fewer hours, (even if the wages are equal to those of full-timers). In some cases, women voluntarily decide to work part-time so that they can care for their families, often preferring the flexibility that it allows them. What is happening is that women are unable to work full-time because of a lack of child-care and other caregiver services. We also see women relegated to the part-time sector due to the decrease in full-time employment possibilities, that is, they face a situation of involuntary underemployment (see: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/25/5/31743836.pdf, page 3).
From 2002-2011, we can see that the disproportionality of women working part-time has been consistent. There are some increases in men working part-time especially following the crisis in 2008, but not displacing women’s predominance in part-time work. So, in 2002, only 10% of men (1,493,000) that were working worked part-time (full-time, 13,604,000). This has risen to 13% (2,074,000) compared to 13,565,000 men working full time in 2012. In comparison, in 2002: 56% of women workers worked full-time (7,203,000) while 44% (5,620,000) worked part-time. In 2012, 7,668,000 women worked full-time (57%) while 43% (5,865,000) worked part-time. Of the total part-time workers in 2012: 73.9% were women.
David Cameron’s Conservative Party government has not created full-time jobs with good wages and decent working conditions. The vast amount of “increased employment” has been in low-paid jobs in retail, jobs that are often temporary and part-time. The International Labor Organization (ILO) definition of employment where to be considered as employed meant that you were in paid employment or self-employment either for one week or one day — it seems as though unemployment is falling (because more work temporarily or are in part-time jobs or have zero hours contracts); but that does not mean that the jobs that are being created are jobs that can keep people out of poverty.
According to the Jerome de Henau of the women’s budget group, if we examining changes in conditions of employment (2010-2013) we find:
• “Self-employment increased faster for women than men (16% vs 9%); women now account for 31% of self-employed, compared to 27% in 2008. (50% of women and 21% of men among them are part-time)
• Men took up many more part-time jobs than women but women’s share of part-time employment is still very high at 74%
• Same for involuntary PT employment (which has more than doubled since 2008 for men and doubled for women but women still 56% of all involuntary part-timers)
• Temporary employment also increased by about 10% for both men and women (with women’s share of temporary employment at 52%). ”
There has been a significant and deliberate destruction of wages, incomes, and conditions of work to maintain profitability of the private sector. The result has been an increase in the working poor who have suffered benefit cuts, though their incomes have not risen. Insultingly, Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary for Work and Pensions, recently blamed the working poor for not earning enough and threatened to cut their benefits even further; as though they set their wage levels and choose to not earn a decent income.
Patterns of underemployment show that it is those working part-time who are most affected. Rising underemployment, more precarious jobs, and zero-hours contracts – contracts with no guaranteed hours where workers are on-call waiting to hear from their erstwhile employers whether they are needed that day – are the result of policies in which the rights of working people, job conditions and wages have been undermined.
The impact of women’s responsibility for social reproduction is evident looking at economic inactivity in January-March 2013. Out of a total of 9,003,000 people who are economically inactive, 2,282,000 people cite household and caring responsibilities as the reason for economic inactivity (25%), 220,000 of them are men, while 2,063,000 are women (90%). Of the 2,299,000 of the “economically inactive” that want to work, 630,000 (27%) say that they are looking after home and family, of those 76,000 are men as compared to 556,000 women (88% are women).
Impact of Cuts to Pensions and Benefits
In the June 2010 Budget, the Government switched from using the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to calculate increases in benefits and state pensions (including public sector worker’s pensions). According to the government’s own estimates, this move resulted in savings of £1.2 billion in 2011/12 and this will increase each year to £5.8 billion by 2014/15.The primary differences between the RPI and the CPI is that the former includes housing costs such as mortgage repayments and council tax and is an arithmetic mean, the latter is geometric and will always be lower; this means that increases in benefits and pensions will certainly be at a lower level as the CPI is lower than the RPI. This re-pegging of benefits accounted for the largest cut in government expenditure with real inflation climbing by 25% rather than the 17% increase judged by the CPI.
Increases in retirement age for women are being gradually phased in. Instead of being able to retire earlier than men, their retirement age is being increased from 60 to 66 by 2020. Combined with pay freezes, increased contribution to pension schemes, and the re-pegging of pensions (and for that matter, state welfare benefit increases) to the CPI, this means that public sector workers are working longer and harder, due to job cutbacks, for less pay, and for a pension that is actually going to be worth less.
Women live longer than men and have lower incomes (both in terms of pay for the same jobs and the fact that “women’s work” pays less). Consequently, their pension contributions and hence their pensions will be lower. Women who can retire will be living longer on lower pensions. Married women may get their husband’s higher pensions upon their deaths, but that does nothing for single women or single mothers. This means that more women will be living longer in poverty.
B) Dependence upon the social welfare state
Given their predominance in part-time and temporary labour and their lower incomes than those in full-time work, the destruction of the universal social welfare system has far greater impact on women who are inevitably more dependent upon social welfare benefits to cover living expenses. Single parent households are predominately female (92%) and they are feeling the impacts of the cuts far harder.
According to the Fawcett Society
“Single mothers will be hardest hit by the government’s programme of benefit cuts and tax rises. It estimates they will lose an average 8.5% of their income after tax by 2015. The gender equality charity said this compared with 7.5% for single fathers, 6.5% for couples with children and 2.5% for couples without children.”
Moreover, the government has been floating the idea, this absurd Malthusian idea, of limits to those on benefits who have more than two children, meaning that those with three or more children will obtain lower levels of benefits.
According to the BBC,
“Of the 7.8 million families receiving child benefit, 1.2 million have more than two children. Of the 5.2 million families receiving child tax credits, about 926,000 of them have more than two children (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20077758).”
According to the Fawcett Society, a British non-governmental organization that women’s equality and rights at home, at work and in public life:
“[…], on average, one-fifth of women’s income is made up of welfare payments and tax credits compared to one-tenth for men. Put another way, benefits make up twice as much of women’s income than men’s (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/benefits/).”
The government’s cap on benefits at £500 (US$810) per week for households composed of couples and lone parent households (for single childless adult households, benefits will be capped at £350 (US$567) per week).
There has also been a further benefit cap of one percent introduced (so that benefits cannot increase by more than one percent each year 0 which is lower than the rate of inflation, even that calculated under the CPI; this is justified by arguing that the real wages of employed people are falling and that people on benefits should not get an increase in income greater than those that are working.
While the government claims that it is “helping people into work” that clearly does not include women as they cut the childcare portion of working tax credits from 80% to 70% in the 2010 budget. This particularly affects single working mother households as they are 60 percent of the recipients of the childcare element. The government has increased the number of working hours needed to qualify from 16-24 hours per week; finding eight additional hours where there is general rising underemployment is not easy.
To clear the poorest from the centre of London, government housing benefits are being capped at a maximum of £400 (US$637) per week for a four-bedroom property. Insufficient amounts of social housing mean long waiting lists; this is especially so for large families. 5 bedroom homes are no longer available for those on housing benefit. Elimination of rent controls in private housing under Thatcher and the rise of “buy to let” have led to the skyrocketing of rents in London. With housing benefits capped, there is a danger that people will take money from their other benefits to cover their housing.
Forcing the poor out of the centre of London will lead to the overcrowding of schools in accessible areas and will undermine existing support that families rely upon. Fifty percent of those receiving housing benefits are single women (often single parents) and there are one million more women than men claiming housing benefits (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/benefits/). Additionally, the bedroom tax (an over-occupancy charge for extra bedrooms) for those in social housing is hitting people with disabilities and single mothers disproportionally, as they are primarily the people that live in social housing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/04/benefits-housing).
Incomes for working people in Britain are being undermined. The fact that there is rising use of food banks and that agencies report that mothers are foregoing eating to feed their children indicate a serious erosion of standards of living. For the first time since WWII, the British Red Cross is planning on distributing food in Britain arising from the impact of the cuts and rising demand for food banks.
So, how do we address the problem?
From mainstream parties, at best, we hear the call for flexible working hours, we hear about tax credits for child care (which assumes that you make enough money to pay tax) and subsidised child care for those earning lower wages.
It is always assumed that addressing child care provision is the way to address this issue. Somehow, women’s general caring responsibilities, of our children, our sick family members, disabled people that are family members, our extended families, our parents, our spouses, are not addressed.
If we want to address job segregation, get women into the labour force, address unpaid labour at home, the wage-gap between men and women, we need more! We need socialisation of care … we need all care to be covered; we need job creation in the traditional areas of women’s caring responsibilities. This will free women to enter the labour market rather than provide unpaid labour at home.
This needs to be done in the public sector and/or with start-up funds from the public sector to set up cooperatives under workers’ control. In the public sector, with unions and the ability to bargain collectively, we can start to close the gap between provision of use values (what society needs) and exchange values (what capitalists will pay) to provide for the needs of society rather than line the pockets of the ruling class. These jobs will no longer leave women’s labour in a segregated market; men will do them as well. It is a transformative step in addressing the reasons for women’s inequality; actually ending inequality in wages, job segregation, and unpaid labour at home and hence in undermining the power of patriarchy that has kept us as second-class citizens.