Bad Brexit Deal Leaves Women Vulnerable
This was supposed to be the Brexit election. But after 3 years of talking about nothing else, it’s hardly a surprise that the public and media are focused on other electoral promises. Much of the election has focused primarily on tax, spending and public services. Rightly so - whoever wins the next election will have to tackle the crisis in the NHS and social care and rising levels of poverty as well as sorting out the chaos of Brexit.
However, we have to remember how closely linked these two issues are. Brexit will have an impact on public services, meanwhile, many commentators have concluded that cuts to spending on public services had an impact on the Brexit vote. At the Women’s Budget Group, we believe both Brexit and public services impact on various women differently and often disproportionately. Brexit is set to have the biggest impact on women on low incomes - especially BAME and disabled women.
We highlighted our concerns in a 2018 report with the Fawcett Society Exploring the Economic Impact of Brexit on Women as well as subsequent analysis of Operation Yellowhammer and Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. We analyse the gendered impact of trade deals by examining the impact of Brexit on women as users of public services, workers and consumers. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
We know that in general women earn less, own less and take on more responsibility for unpaid care - leaving them with less time to do paid work. This means the majority of the UK’s poor are women and, women rely more on public services for both employment and to pass on some unpaid labour to people who are paid to do it. With every analysis of Brexit confirming that, in any form, it will harm the economy, we have a serious concern about what this might mean for public services like hospitals, schools and care homes.
If, like in 2008, economic downturn leads to cuts to these services it will be women who pay the heaviest price. This is because they are four times more likely to pick up the shortfall when public services cannot care for people. This leaves them with less time for paid work increasing the gender pay gap and reproducing the gender division of labour. If trade deals result in further outsourcing of NHS services women’s jobs are most at risk given they currently make up 77% of NHS staff.
Arguably the defining feature of Boris Johnson’s pre-election Brexit deal is that it increases the scope for rolling back workers’ rights by placing commitments to non-regression in the non-legally binding Political Declaration. There are workers’ rights which are specific to women and gender equality, many of which have their origins in European Directives or regulations. This risk is twofold: economic downturn as described above could see pressure on a future government to roll back employment rights, meanwhile, workers will not have the safety net of EU regulation anymore.
For example, pregnant workers are currently protected from discrimination by the European Pregnant Workers’ Directive enshrined in UK law in the Equality Act. But, post-Brexit if a future government decides to remove existing rights against maternity discrimination in the name of removing ‘red tape’, pregnant workers will not be able to rely on the European Directive.
At the same time, we will not be covered future European Directives like the Work-Life Balance Directive. This must be implemented by member states by 2022, which, amongst others things, sets out a requirement for four months parental leave, two of which must be paid and non-transferable from one parent to another. Although this is not enough by itself to redistribute care work between women and men, it sets a precedent that care matters and should be valued and paid. These are just two examples of how rights regression risks turning back the clock on gender equality.
According to DWP figures, 45% of single-parent families are living in poverty – 90% of these families are led by women. Foodbank usage continues to rise year on year and Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit, will lead to an increase in food prices which women especially just cannot afford. We know that women in low-income households are most likely to be responsible for household budgeting and more likely to go without when there’s not enough food or heat to go around. There is also a risk that the need to be ‘competitive’ in pursuit of new Free Trade Agreements could result in lowered consumer rights and food standards.
Far from taking back control, a bad deal with the EU leaves us vulnerable to a rollback of social protections and standards which will disproportionately impact the poorest women including BAME and disabled women.
The truth is that we shouldn’t have to write this analysis. That is the government’s job under the Public Sector Equality Duty to have ‘due regard’ for equality of those with protected characteristics. Yet analysis published so far by the government has been vague and incomplete.
We hope that whoever ends up in government this December will publish a meaningful and comprehensive Equality Impact Assessment of any Brexit plan and put in place measures to mitigate the impact on women and marginalised groups. We have to demand ringfenced funding for care, no regression on rights and the involvement of women’s civil society at every turn.
By Jenna Norman, Public Affairs Officer, UK Women’s Budget Group.