Dignity and recognition for all work will be the basis of a fair and sustainable economy
As Frances O’Grady argues in the foreword to the CLASS publication “Election 2015: What’s at stake for work, pay and unions?” the forthcoming election is “a chance to reject a broken economic system”. That encapsulates the arguments from a feminist economics and feminist political analysis of the current economic system and the policy responses of the UK government that are increasingly harmful to women’s wellbeing and their economic and social autonomy.
The UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Groups have long since argued that the economic system is broken. The fundamental flaw is the failure to recognize and account for women’s unpaid contribution to sustaining the paid economy. In arguing that “the economy must work for all working people” as stated in the CLASS publication, it is imperative that is understood as including all forms of work. So long as the economy is thought of as people in waged jobs, then care and women’s unpaid contribution to care and provisioning for ‘real’ workers in the waged economy remain invisible and unaccounted for in measures of GDP or national accounting. It also means that women, and other groups not constructed around a male breadwinner or default economic man model, are undervalued and overlooked in economic policy and decision-making.
Spending cuts at all levels of government have had the harshest impact on women as workers and service users. In Scotland these effects are compounded by the knock-on effects of the Council Tax freeze imposed by the Scottish Government. The lost jobs in the public sector previously occupied by women (as the majority of public sector employees), withdrawal of public services, downward pressure on wages and recasting of welfare and where concerns for dignity and protection have been forced aside by notions of entitlement are combining to push women back into gendered roles within households while still trying to maintain household incomes through low paid, vulnerable jobs.
Looking back to the original demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement, despite acknowledged gains, we are still a far cry from realizing the core goals of equal pay for equal work and legal and financial independence. Ongoing equal pay disputes - still running into tens of thousands in the Scottish Employment Tribunals - deny women their earnings, and the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees cut off access to justice for equal pay and other sex discrimination claims. These all amount to a formidable list for trade union action.
Enduring and persistent inequality in pay, in access to the labour market and an expanded range of jobs and occupations is at the heart of women’s economic inequality. While wider household incomes, public attitudes and role models for children are also affected it is individual women who bear the brunt of these deep-rooted forms of discrimination.
All these issues and more are bound up in the UK government’s zeal to reduce the deficit. That and their ongoing claims that their Plan A for ‘long-term economic recovery’ is working were the impetus for the UK Women’s Budget Group’s Plan F. Arguing for an equality-led recovery sustained by labour market policies that ensure real wages and productivity grow together and through investment in social infrastructure that provides employment, security, and care, a Plan F calls for alternatives to the broken economic system and secures economic stability and autonomy for women and men.
Necessities at the heart of Plan F are:
● Government economic policies and budgets must be fully and robustly assessed for their impact on gender and other equalities.
● Better pay, training, employment rights and job security for care workers.
● More support from public services and social security benefits for unpaid carers looking after family and friends (who are mainly women).
● Reform Universal Credit so that women gain from earning rather than those with
employed partners classed as ‘second earners’. As it stands, many families in this situation will lose payments at a higher rate than in the current situation if they start earning.
● Build new houses. Funding should be directed to protect those on low incomes requiring social housing and not subsidizing lending for mortgages.
● Raise the national minimum wage to a higher proportion of median wages.
● Repeal social security measures that are destroying women’s links with their families and communities, such as the bedroom tax and the benefits cap.
● Invest in social as well as physical infrastructure to secure sustained investment in good quality care for children, older people and those with disabilities.
● Raise more tax revenue from wealthy people and companies. Tax wealth and invest in care, public transport and social housing.
● A long term plan for a more diverse economy, rebalancing it away from (male dominated) finance and towards investment in social infrastructure.
In fixing a broken economic system we need to look to developing a caring economy that nurtures individuals, recognizes the value of care and rewards the provision of care. As the election campaign ratchets up, these are the key demands to make of political parties and the key political actors of the trade unions.
Women in Scotland’s Economy - www.gcu.ac.uk/wise
UK Women’s Budget Group - www.wbg.org.uk
Scottish Women’s Budget Group - www.swbg.org.uk