Socialist Worker

Austerity backlash: how Tory policies hit working class women hard

The Tories are ripping up the lives of working class women, according to a new report by the Fawcett Society, writes Judith Orr

Issue No. 2351

Statistics about women

The Tories are ripping up the lives of working class women, according to a new report by the Fawcett Society.

Unemployment among women in Britain is at a 26-year high. And almost three times as many women as men have become long-term unemployed in the last two and a half years.

The Fawcett Society report warns that, if the Tories get their way, much worse is to come. 

The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility reveals that a massive 75 percent of public sector job losses are still to come.

It predicts that some 1.48 million women could be unemployed in just five years time. The figure last year was 1.12 million.

Women are being hit disproportionately because the Tories are targeting the public sector. They hate the fact that the welfare state exists to help people rather than making profits for their rich friends.

But the public sector employs a third of all women workers in Britain. The post-war boom saw a massive expansion of the public sector at a time when more women were moving into the workforce.

Changes in benefit rules have also helped push up the unemployment rate for women. 

Single parents whose youngest child reached seven were moved from income support to Jobseekers’ allowance in 2010. From October 2011 they were moved when their youngest child was five.

Some 92 percent of single parents are women.

The Tories claim they want to help unemployed women find work. But they refuse to tackle the enormous cost of childcare.

Childcare in Britain is estimated to cost 43 percent of average incomes. In France the figure is 14.8 percent while in Germany it’s 9.1 percent.

Tory chancellor George Osborne announced new vouchers worth £1,200 a year to help with childcare costs in his last budget.

But they are only for people who already have a job. For couples, both people have to be employed to get the vouchers. And they don’t start until 2015.

“Childcare costs are staggering”, said Mandy Brown, a teacher and UCU union rep in south London. “One of my colleagues with children has moved to Peterborough and commutes to south London as she can’t afford the cost of living here any more.”

Women still carry most of the burden of childcare—which is partly why three times as many women as men work part time. This helps lock women into low-paid work.

Some 41 percent of part time workers are paid below the living wage, compared to 11 percent of full time workers. 

And both men and women are finding it harder to get full time jobs even if they want them.

The government has claimed that the private sector will replace lost public sector jobs. But this hasn’t happened. The Fawcett report shows that women are less likely to find new jobs in the private sector than men.

And if they do find private sector work, they face even lower wages. The gender pay gap in the private sector is 24 percent compared to 17 percent in the public sector.

The government has refused to clamp down on firms that don’t address unequal pay. Companies don’t even have to look at the issue.

The Fawcett report shows that just 4 percent of large and medium employers reported on the gender pay gap within their organisations.

Women workers’ inequality doesn’t just stop at pay. Average pensions for women are worth just 62 percent of the average male pension. Women in full time work are being hit hard too.

Suzy Franklin works in a hospital in the south west of England. She described the impact of cuts on women workers. “Nurses’ hours are being cut so management can save money,” she said.

“But women who have childcare and bills can’t afford to work fewer hours.”

For some women the situation is dire. “One worker in my hospital is being threatened with eviction from her housing association flat,” said Suzy. “She works full time as a domestic. But she still really struggles.”

Suzy said that people sometimes say that people on benefits are the problem. “It’s what the media is feeding us every day,” she said. “But you can turn this around if you point to the bankers and the Tories.”

Of course the government’s assault is hitting working class men too. Jobs predominantly done by men were the first to go in the wave of job losses in when the economic crisis broke in 2008. 

Men are still more likely to be long-term unemployed. Government figures for 2012 show that 39.1 percent of men are long term unemployed compared to 31.5 percent of women. 

But the cuts have a disproportionate impact on women because of the jobs women tend to do. They are also devastating the services that many working class women rely on.

The attacks have sparked resistance. “My union was at the forefront of the big fight over pensions in 2011,” said Mandy.

“People haven’t given up hope that we can have more big united strikes against the government. The idea of a general strike makes sense to people.

“We were ready for such a fight, but we were denied the opportunity. But the anger is still there, it’s just bubbling under the surface.”

Klara Friend, Assistant childminder

“Child care is very low paid­—even though you need to be qualified to do it—and it’s predominantly women workers. It seems to be a high profit industry.  

The government said it wanted to help women by raising the number of children that childminders can legally look after. I was disgusted.

We won’t be changing the ratio where I work. It would definitely affect the level of care for children.

Women’s low pay affects a whole household. My husband is a plasterer and he has sometimes been out of work. 

We both work as many hours as we can. I work full time, up to 40 hours a week. But it’s hard to survive. I have to borrow from my mum and she helps us with money for food too. 

I’m 24 and I don’t want to be relying on my parents. We can’t even consider having a baby because we couldn’t afford it. 

A couple of times we have had to ask for help from the council and felt embarrassed about it. There is a big stigma about saying you need support.

We didn’t even want to tell our families. 

The media keep saying people are scroungers, but we work hard. The thing is that the minimum wage is not a wage you can live on. 

I feel abandoned by the government. Politicians go on about the family, but people like us are pushed aside.”

Carole O’Keefe, Anti-bedroom tax campaigner 

“I was in a bad marriage and I got divorced. I lost my home and ended up in a hostel for months. 

Then the council offered me a two bedroom flat. It was in a high rise and no one else wanted it. I left my marriage with absolutely nothing and found a safe haven here. Now I feel like I’m in danger of going back to nothing.

I had a job in finance, worked hard and paid my taxes for 15 years. Then I was made redundant. 

I have already got four letters from the council about my arrears because of what they see as my “extra” bedroom. But I can’t pay more.

The Tories are trying to crucify working class women, in fact all working class people. They think we are worthless. Every day I see people at breaking point. 

But I won’t allow them to break me. I’m not political, I’m an ordinary person. But I’m getting out and talking to people about how we have to stand together. 

I never thought I’d have the confidence to do this sort of thing.

I haven’t got a computer or the internet at home. But it doesn’t stop me. I do my organising from the local library.

I also help with a food bank through the local church. Lots of people use it including some who are homeless and sometimes immigrants. Some people try and blame immigrants for our problems, but I believe we are all part of the same community. 

Our local Defend our Homes group is mostly made up of women who want to get their voice heard. We are all supporting each other. I won’t go away.”


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Tue 30 Apr 2013, 16:34 BST
Issue No. 2351
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