By Rebecca Anderson
2 May 2015
Chancellor George Osborne crowed in his 2015 budget speech that the employment rate was at 73 per cent, an all-time high. Those with friends and family struggling to find work will be surprised by this statistic, but the Tories have been very effective at kicking people off benefits.
Job Centre sanctions are forcing unemployed people to take any kind of work offered to them, no matter how few hours are available, what the salary is or how rubbish the conditions. Faced with the prospect of slaving away for free in various dead-end workfare schemes, some are even declaring themselves self-employed: working long hours while paying themselves less than the minimum wage.
Green party leader Natalie Bennett pointed out in the ITV leaders’ debate that 80 per cent of self-employed people are living in poverty. Yet women are more likely to be self-employed than men. They are also more likely to work in lower paid and part-time jobs.
It is the recession that has forced women to take worse jobs. Women have been forced to trade relatively well-paid, full-time, permanent posts in the public sector (where women form a majority) for low-waged, part-time, temporary or zero-hours contracts in the private sector. Unsurprisingly the pay gap between men and women has widened after years of narrowing. It now stands at 15.7 per cent.
Tory austerity is also turning back the clock on the gains that women have made in terms of gaining more independence through access to Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit – and all the social advances that are linked to that financial independence.
The Independent Inquiry into Women and Job Seeker’s Allowance says: “85 per cent of the revenue saved through changes to the tax and benefit system since 2010 has come from women (£22 billion), and 15 per cent from men (£4 billion)”.
The inquiry also points out that those with caring responsibilities are more likely to be sanctioned by Job Centres, and that people who lose their Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) are also liable to lose access to free school meals, free prescriptions and Healthy Start milk.
This impoverishes children as well as their mothers, and inevitably makes it harder for women to leave unhappy relationships. The Women’s Budget Group reports that lone parents have lost 15.1 per cent of their disposable income – and 92 per cent of lone parents are women. The safety net of benefits that the Tories are eroding has for decades provided women with an alternative to remaining in abusive relationships. Now this safety-net is being shredded.
To compound this problem, the Tories have systematically withdrawn funding to women’s refuges and other services providing support to victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
As the General Election looms, we should all be aware of how devastating the cuts have been for women and how much worse the situation could get. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that there will be a further £50 billion of spending cuts if the Tories win the election.
Whoever wins in May, it won’t be working class women.
All the major parties are committed to cuts; it’s just a question of how much and how fast. If we are to defend our public services and welfare state, win more secure employment and force the government to fund women’s refuges then we need to fight.
We need to be organised in trade unions, political parties and anti-austerity campaigns; it almost goes without saying that women are often the majority in these working class organisations (though rarely in the leadership). But the burden of austerity on women also means that we need to organise as women.
A working class women’s movement that exposes all the attacks on women’s financial and social independence, that launches campaigns in defence of women, and fights for women’s liberation could win significant victories against whatever government takes power next month.