Women – on the frontline of resistance to austerity

Newcastle FRFI supports the campaing to stop cuts in Sure Start provision

The capitalist parties are committed to continuing austerity and working class women will continue to suffer the most. The five years since the last general election have seen attacks on work, benefits, housing, services and childcare. Resistance has, however, been slowly building and women are leading the way in organising themselves and their communities to fight back. Rachel Francis reports.

Work, unemployment and sanctions

The increasing number of women in work has been accompanied by an even steeper increase in the number of poorly paid, insecure contracts. Women make up 54% of temporary workers and 55% of zero-hours contract workers, despite making up 47% of workers overall. More women work part time than men, as they are increasingly unable to find full-time employment, and earn 38% less than men on these contracts. The number of young women – aged 18-24 – in employment plummeted at the onset of the recession and has not recovered; it currently stands at 59%.

Those in more traditionally secure employment are worse off: since 2011 women working as nurses and primary school teachers have seen a 7% pay cut in real terms, care workers have lost 6% and retail workers 5%. Worsening pay and conditions look set to continue as public services are taken over by private companies.

Those in work are punished for having children. Women with children earn less than women without, a pay gap that increases with each subsequent child. Despite increasing inequality, legal challenges have fallen dramatically since employment tribunal fees of £1,200 were introduced in 2013. Since then, there have been 84% fewer equal pay claims, 81% fewer sex discrimination claims and 26% fewer pregnancy dismissal claims.

Women who rely on benefits, both in and out of work, are some of the hardest hit. There has been a significant rise in benefit sanctions against single parents, from 200 a month in 2008 to 5,000 in 2014; 92% of single parents are women. Of the £26bn that has been extorted from tax and benefit reforms since 2010, £22bn has been taken from women – a total of 85%.

The erosion of women’s financial security results in potentially devastating dependency. Universal Credit perpetuates the possibility of financial abuse, as money meant for a household will be paid into one bank account. Women’s Aid have interviewed women who explained the devastation this will have on their lives: ‘he’ll wake up one morning with £1,500 in his account and piss off with it, leaving us with nothing for weeks’. Disabled women are twice as likely to face this abuse.

Women filling the gap for public service cuts

Shrinking public services have a significant impact on women, with public spaces and provision often the only limited relief from the isolation of caring for children. Childcare remains simply unaffordable. In the past five years, the cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two increased by 33%. Children’s centres, designed to provide support for those most in need, have faced sustained attacks since the removal of the funding ring-fence in 2011; they faced a 20% cut in spending over the past year, and over a third of centres are at risk this year. Others have reduced opening hours and provision – over half have stopped providing onsite childcare and 20% have started charging for some services. Childcare has been a focus for the main parties in the run up to the general election and used to divide those they see as ‘deserving’ working families from those who are not. Universal free childcare is of course never mentioned.

Women are still providing the vast majority of care at home, alongside difficult work conditions. Women in the EU spend an average of 26 hours per week on home and care activities, compared with nine hours for men. The reduction in support will only increase the burden placed on women who cannot pay for full childcare.

Housing

Women make up 50% of housing benefit claimants, with men making up to 30% and couples 20%. Accordingly, women have lost £2.3bn worth of Housing Benefit, compared with a loss of £1.5bn for men. The bedroom tax affected 340,000 single women, alongside 160,000 single men and 160,000 couples. The benefit cap has been found to disproportionately affect women with large families. Women are at the sharp end of all housing-related changes. Councils across London are consistently trying to force women and children out of London, to where rents are cheaper.

In addition to the everyday violence inflicted by the government and its cuts, support for women facing domestic violence has also been severely reduced. 2013 saw the scrapping of Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants, some of the very limited support women can receive when fleeing violence. Local council funding for housing groups considered vulnerable, including women and children in need, has fallen by an average of 45%.

Fight back!

While resistance since the recession and last general election has been desperately lacking, community campaigns have now started to grow following persistent organising and activity. Working class women are leading resistance in the campaigns of Focus E15, New Era, Our West Hendon, Sweets Way, and the Aylesbury Estate. It is predominately women leading the Newcastle Parents Against Cuts campaign to save Sure Start centres. The 3 Cosas campaign, which began fighting for the living wage, holidays, sick pay and pensions for university cleaners, and has become much more, has been led by women. It is campaigning against maternity discrimination for an outsourced cleaner dismissed because of ‘her condition’ and is currently leading a ‘3 Cosas Women Go to Tribunal’ campaign. Crucial to its resistance has been exposing the despicable actions of UNISON, who have tried to destroy the campaign, even using the police to attack the campaign (facebook.com/3cosa).

Those who defend the capitalist parties offer nothing for working class women. Instead, working class women are organising in local communities, using everything at their disposal, because there is no alternative. Rather than look to the ballot box, it is time to look to vibrant campaigns instead and continue the long history of working class people organising themselves to build real democracy and solutions. Women are increasingly realising the words of revolutionary Assata Shakur: ‘a woman’s place is in the struggle’

Statistics largely drawn from recent reports:

www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/UnequalTrappedControlled.pdf

www.nuj.org.uk/documents/tuc-report-on-the-impact-on-women-of-recession-and-austerity/

www.4children.org.uk/Resources/Detail/Children-Centres-Census-2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015

 

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