Working class women shoulder the burden

The British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the burden faced by working class women. It has exposed existing fault-lines caused by years of austerity, low pay and service cuts, and shown the extent to which women were already filling the gaps. Those most in need of support — women experiencing domestic violence and migrant women — are yet again receiving the least. The isolated, unrecognised work women perform in the home has been the focus of media attention throughout the lockdown. But it is the impact on better-off sections of women which has dominated. A revolutionary perspective is needed to challenge deepening inequalities. Rachel Francis reports.

Domestic violence

As countries around the world locked down, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described a ‘horrifying surge in domestic violence’ as ‘many women under lockdown for Covid-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes.’ He urged governments to be prepared. Instead, in Britain there was no plan, characteristic of the arrogance and disdain for working class lives that has characterised the British government’s overall response.
Domestic violence services, devastated by years of austerity, were unable to meet people’s needs before the pandemic. 64% of refuge referrals were declined last year. Migrant women with no recourse to public funds are often left unable to access any support at all.

There is now even less support than before the pandemic. Of 119 support organisations surveyed in March, more than three-quarters reported that they have had to reduce their services due to staffing and the pandemic response.

The national domestic abuse helpline saw a 25% increase in calls and online support requests in the first weeks of lockdown, with website visits 150% higher than at the end of February. Between 23 March and 12 April, campaigners identified at least 16 deaths from domestic violence, more than double the average rate. The reported figures are likely the tip of the iceberg.

The government’s Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 had its second reading in parliament on 28 April, which is supposed to ensure priority housing for women experiencing domestic violence. At the beginning of May the government pledged £76m for the most vulnerable in society, including those experiencing domestic violence, vulnerable children and those facing homelessness. This falls far short of what is needed — £173m per year is needed to just provide adequate refuge services for women and children.

Women workers on the ‘frontline’

Women make up 77% of healthcare workers; 70% of teachers, rising to over 80% of primary school teachers; over 80% of social care workers and 58% of retail workers.

Working conditions prior to the pandemic were defined by pay cuts and freezes, increasing work intensity and privatisation. NHS pay, for example, was frozen in 2011 and then capped at 1% in 2013 for five years, which meant huge pay cuts due to inflation. In 2018 a nurse was payed 10% less than in 2011. The lifting of the cap barely changed pay packets and left some worse off. This will particularly affect women, who, even in the sectors they dominate, are likely to be paid worse and occupy fewer senior positions, particularly women from BAME backgrounds. 89% of nurses and health visitors are women yet two thirds of senior nursing positions are held by men.

The criminal lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare and other workers has rightly been widely criticised, and full PPE for all workers must be demanded. But it is significant that ‘universal’ PPE is fitted to men’s bodies and does not fit many women safely, leaving them at risk.

Unemployment and benefits

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) describes a ‘remarkable concentration’ of women, low-paid workers and young people in sectors that have been most affected. Women are a third more likely to work in a sector that has been shut down, and low earners — the majority women — are seven times more likely to work in a shutdown sector than higher earners. Workers under 25 are particularly badly affected because of the concentration of retail and hospitality roles, the majority again being performed by young women. As of 19 May, 2.9 million people had applied for Universal Credit (UC) since the start of lockdown.

Caring responsibilities intensify

Women with caring responsibilities have been left to deal with the challenges alone while the needs of children, people with disabilities and older people have been dismissed. Nursery access has varied widely, with some paying despite closures. The reliance on grandparents — 40% of grandparents report providing regular childcare — has been made impossible, exposing how much people are forced to fill in the gaps because of the lack of state support. An IFS-UCL study on lockdown found that women are performing more childcare and housework than men and are interrupted by family more frequently when working. Mothers are 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs or quit. The Fawcett Society warns of a ‘two-tier workplace where men go back and women stay home’.

Women in prison and detention

Social distancing or necessary hygiene measures are impossible in prisons. Of the few prisoners who have been released, 21 are pregnant women. Many women in prison remain central to the care of their children and other family members.
Women are still being sent to Yarl’s Wood ‘Immigration Removal Centre’, despite the centre having a reported case of Covid-19. It took a legal challenge for the Home Office to release some detainees, but many remain and are fearful for their health and lives.

A ‘new normal’

It is clear that we do need a ‘new normal’ but not the kind that the government is laying out for us. Not the kind where women pay for the economic crisis whilst the banks are bailed out. Not the kind where impossible work and home demands are left to individuals. Not the kind where inequality deepens and the poorest are punished. Now more than ever we need to set our sights beyond the limits set by a racist, sexist system.