“As we celebrate International Women’s Day we remember the women who have gone before us and who were not prepared to settle for what they were being offered.”
By Ruth Hayes
The TUC’s recent report on the gender pay gap showed that women are earning 14.9% less than men. Whilst the gap has reduced over the last 30 years, it is narrowing very slowly and in some types of employment it has actually grown recently.
60% of all jobs paid below the real Living Wage are held by women, with half a million more working women being paid below the real Living Wage than men.
As inflation runs well into double digits, especially on essential items, and with pay lagging behind, poverty is having an increasing impact on women.
The last year has seen a rise in workers taking industrial action over pay and conditions in a wide range of industries, including sectors where there are a high percentage of women employed.
For example, 90% of nurses are women, as are over 75% of teachers. These are workers who are often part of the invisible fabric of our communities – there day to day to support us when we need them. Now there is strike action in every neighbourhood.
However, what comes across very forcefully on the picket line is that for many women, direct pay is only one aspect of their working lives that need to change.
For example, CWU members facing changes to their shift times as posties can find that their childcare arrangements are affected – after school provision can cost an additional £400 per month – a huge cut in take home pay.
Stress levels and the need to put in more time than is paid for to get through the work are also a major factor in why women workers are taking to their picket lines and demanding better.
As the Government faces pressures due to a shrinking workforce (despite the age at which workers can draw down their state pension increasing), the failure to invest in the infrastructure which would support women in employment becomes ever more evident.
Women are more likely to take primary responsibility for childcare, and for providing support to disabled and older adults. Both the costs and the availability of suitable alternatives to unpaid family care are a huge issue and stop women who want to be in paid work from being able to do so.
Women are less likely to drive and/or to have access to a car, and the decline in bus routes (one in 4 routes have been cut in the last 10 years) has had a disproportionate impact on us.
Many public services have been privatised by stealth, with greater use of the private sector to deliver services to NHS patients, and with schools increasingly run by academy trusts.
Jobs which used to give women security and a decent income have become casualised and low-paid: on a recent picket line, an academic explained how she was working at 4 different universities at the same time on an hourly rates basis, and many months did not earn enough to pay back her student loan.
Younger women talk about how they cannot see that they can afford to start a family, and older colleagues try to juggle paid work along with caring responsibilities past the age at which their mothers could retire.
The solutions to these issues lie in a radical re-thinking of how our society is run – we need good, cheap public transport; publicly owned and delivered NHS and education services which treat the workforce as valued contributors; free and high quality childcare with staff who are skilled and properly paid; a sea change in support for disabled people and older adults with high quality personalised support free at the point of need and publicly delivered.
Our social security system needs to provide a proper safety net, with a minimum income guarantee, and a proper recognition of the contribution of unpaid carers.
Alongside this, we need to address the huge challenges around women’s safety – economic pressures can leave women even more vulnerable to exploitation and attack.
It is heartening to see initiatives such as Unite’s “Get me home safely” campaign which harness our strength in the workplace with our strength as community activists to demand change.
Public support for the nurses and teachers (alongside a range of other workers) has been high and it is vital that we build effectively for the day of action on budget day (March 15).,
As we celebrate International Women’s Day we remember the women who have gone before us and who were not prepared to settle for what they were being offered, as well as the women across the world who are facing war, the impact of the climate emergency, and oppression and are struggling to create a better world.
Like them, we will organise in the workplace and in our communities, supporting each other and taking action. In the words of the old song:
“Our lives will not be sweated from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies, Give us bread, but give us roses”.
We want roses too!
- Ruth Hayes is a member of Unite’s Executive Committee and an organiser for Labour Women Lead. You can follow her on twitter here.
- Arise Festival is organising an online rally to celebrate International Women’s Day 2023: “Women for Socialist Change – #IWD23,” taking place today (March 8th) at 1PM.