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The Covid pandemic has shone a spotlight on all forms of inequality in capitalist society. If you live in a poor area you are twice as likely to die from Covid than if you live in a rich one. The lowest paid are more than twice as likely as the highest paid to lose their jobs. The poorest have seen their incomes fall while those of the rich have risen. Poverty and discrimination have combined to make black, Asian and minority ethnic people especially vulnerable.
The pre-existing gender inequality in society has meant that women, particularly working-class women, have been especially hit by the economic and social consequences of the pandemic . Our jobs, pay, hours and working conditions, as well as the services we rely on, have all come under attack.
Our levels of stress and anxiety have gone through the roof as we've worried about catching the virus; losing our jobs; having our hours cut; surviving on lower incomes; juggling childcare and care of other family members, work and home-schooling; surviving lockdown, and been concerned about what kind of future we will have in a society that puts the profits of the super-rich before the needs of the majority.
A major battle is brewing as the Tories and the big business interests they represent prepare to offload the Covid bill onto working-class people. We can't sit back while our lives and livelihoods come under attack, and the rights that have been fought for and won over decades are pushed back. We need urgently to get organised and fight back.
But Covid has also revealed that the organisations which were created to defend our interests have not brought their full potential to bear. At the beginning of the pandemic, many of the trade union leaders appeared to give up the struggle entirely. But where workers have organised together over workplace safety, such as in the schools, it has been possible to put pressure on the trade union leaders and make gains.
Building fighting trade union organisations will be central to preparing the fight back that will be needed to defend the rights of women and the whole working class in the face of the onslaught that is to come.
Covid has also dramatically exposed the failings and rottenness of a capitalist system based on profit, inequality and exploitation. It has shown the need for a root-and-branch transformation of the way that society is organised and structured.
We believe that socialism, where the major companies are publicly owned and controlled, and the economy is democratically planned in the interests of the majority, not a super-rich, profit-hungry minority, is the only viable alternative to the capitalist system, and the only guarantee that what we win through struggle will not be taken away again in the future.
Yet it is precisely at this time that the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has moved away from defending the interests of working-class people. It has abandoned Jeremy Corbyn's programme that gave a glimpse of a political alternative to this failed system.
This poses the need for building a new mass workers' party that can bring together trade unionists, young people, community campaigners and socialists to offer a real alternative to working-class people.
This programme has been drawn up as a campaigning platform: to take into the workplaces and the trade unions, into the universities and colleges, and into local communities and campaign groups. As part of our broader programme to end capitalism, this is a fighting programme to defend the gains that women have made and to win what is necessary to live a life free from inequality, poverty, discrimination and oppression.
While many workers are compelled to work long hours, others can't get the hours they need to survive financially. This is especially true for women in part-time work, many of whom would like to work more hours. At the same time, many women are forced to take on multiple jobs in order to try and make ends meet.
'Workplace flexibility' has for the most part been a one-way process for the benefit of the bosses and their profits. Zero-hour contracts make it almost impossible to combine work and childcare. And during the pandemic women workers have been more likely than male workers to have had their hours cut.
The pandemic has shown that many jobs can be done in flexible locations and at flexible times, but this must not be abused by the bosses.
Because of historic discrimination, and because they still have the main responsibility for caring for children and other family members, women tend to be concentrated in low-paid, part-time, and often precarious jobs. They are especially likely to be working in sectors such as hospitality and retail which have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the same time, despite what the Tories say, austerity has not gone away. Both Labour and Tory local councils continue to pass on Tory-imposed cuts and privatisation. Because they make up a large proportion of workers in local authority-funded services, women have borne the brunt of job losses. Even the Tory chair of the all-parliamentary group on women and work has had to admit that we are on the "brink of a bloodbath" as far as women's jobs are concerned.
Even before the pandemic women workers earnt, on average, 17% less than male workers - the equivalent of two months free work a year! The situation for part-time women workers is even worse.
Covid has brought into sharp relief the importance of childcare to the lives of millions of working women and the disastrous state of the privatised care sector. Lockdown and home schooling have exposed how women are still responsible for the bulk of childcare in families. In a third of cases where women have had their hours or jobs cut during the pandemic, it has been because of childcare difficulties - 44% for black women.
Childcare was already a problem before Covid-19 struck. It is the most expensive in Europe. Government subsidies don't cover the full cost of care and supply is patchy. Now, up to a quarter of providers in the private sector are threatening to close because they say they can't make sufficient profits. Closures are more likely in working-class areas where parents can't afford to make up the difference when fees go up.
And of course, 98% of childcare workers are women - underpaid, overworked, undervalued, and now facing huge job losses. Cuts have also led to increased ratios of carers to children and compromised safety and quality of care.
As unemployment has shot up, more and more people have experienced first-hand just how threadbare and punitive the benefit system has become after years of cuts and privatisation. It is clear that Universal Credit is not fit for purpose. The fact that a third of those claiming benefits are in work is an indictment of the low-paying, exploitative economic system we live in and shows the urgent need for a decent minimum wage.
Because of the kind of jobs they are employed in, and because of caring responsibilities, women are more likely to rely on a failing benefit system that entrenches poverty and inequality throughout their lives, including in old age. At 40%, the gender pension gap is more than double the gender pay gap.
This can be exacerbated by student debt. Because of interest payments on loans, low pay and career breaks can mean that women end up paying back more in the long run.
Every year 54,000 women are sacked for being pregnant. This has worsened during the pandemic with pregnant women often being singled out when jobs or hours are cut. Pregnant women have also been placed under pressure by employers to continue working, even on the front line, putting their lives and health, and that of their unborn children, at risk. Many who have questioned these risks have been threatened with pay cuts and job losses.
With almost 6.5 million members, trade unions are the main vehicle for fighting for women's rights at work. They also potentially have a broader role to play in campaigning for decent services and benefits, and for the building of a new mass workers' political party that can fight for our interests.
Women make up more than half of trade union members. During the pandemic, the membership of several unions has gone up as workers have seen the need for collective organisation to defend their safety, jobs, pay and conditions. Some of the biggest increases in membership have been in sectors where women predominate such as in social care and education.
The growth has been most spectacular where unions have, under pressure from members, taken a fighting stance, such as the National Education Union over school safety. Many of those joining unions during the pandemic are not sitting on the sidelines but becoming trade union reps and getting active.
One in four women will experience domestic abuse at some time in their lives. On average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. In the first Covid lockdown this horrific figure more than doubled. The number of women searching for advice or support skyrocketed.
Legal support for women experiencing violence and abuse is clearly important. But so is ensuring that the economic resources are available to help women escape abuse. Women who lose their jobs, have their hours reduced, or their benefits cut may find it harder to leave a violent or abusive relationship. Cuts and closures of refuges have resulted in 60% of women who have sought help being turned away. Lack of social housing means more difficulty in finding permanent accommodation.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic women, and LGBT+ women experiencing abuse may have specific needs that are not always met by existing services. Migrant women with no recourse to public funds are currently excluded from support and some may face deportation if they report or leave an abuser.
Although it mainly happens in a domestic setting, intimate partner violence and abuse nonetheless impacts women at work. It can affect work attendance and performance rates. Women may need to request a change of workplace in order to avoid an abuser.
Specialist resources for women experiencing rape and sexual assault have been seriously affected by cuts and closures. In addition, they face enormous obstacles from the way that the criminal justice system is organised and run.
Austerity and privatisation have devastated local services. Central government funding was halved from 2010-2018 resulting in an 8% cut in social care budgets. Because women are more likely to be carers, they are disproportionately affected by cuts and the outsourcing of care of the elderly, the disabled, children's services, etc.
The Covid pandemic has also brought into focus the dramatic housing situation with millions forced to live in cramped and inadequate homes, in temporary accommodation or, in the most extreme cases, on the streets.
Cuts to public transport make life more difficult for all working-class people, but especially for working-class women.
The #Metoo campaign highlighted just how widespread sexual harassment is in society. More than half of women say they have been sexually harassed at work. Many women in low-paid, precarious jobs feel that they have no choice but to put up with the harassment for fear of losing their jobs. Even when harassment is reported the measures in place to deal with it are often unclear and ineffective.
Recent research estimates that at least 50,000 incidents of sexual harassment and violence occur on UK university campuses every year. A National Union of Students survey in 2015 found one in five students experience sexual harassment during freshers week alone.
37% of girls and young women report experiencing sexual harassment at school. Many schools do not have adequate safeguards and procedures in place and just one in five teachers receive training for dealing with sexual harassment.
Years of underfunding and privatisation have left the NHS in no fit state to adequately face the Covid pandemic. Shortages of staff and beds have resulted in the cancellation of non-Covid treatment and operations, and lengthening waiting lists.
Before the pandemic there was a shortage of 2,500 midwives. This doubled during the coronavirus outbreak to leave one in five posts unfilled.
Covid has also aggravated an already serious mental health crisis, with women suffering especially from increased anxiety and depression, and self-harm amongst young women and girls escalating. Cuts to services mean that they are not getting the support they desperately need.
In addition, a number of scandals in hospital trusts have exposed not just the consequences of cuts and privatisation but a sexist culture existing in parts of the NHS which has had an adverse effect on women's health.
It should be the right of all women to decide when or whether to have children. On the one hand, this means access to contraception, abortion, fertility services and sex education. On the other, it means ensuring that the resources are available for childcare, local services, decent housing and a guaranteed income that can enable children to be brought up free from poverty. There should be no barriers based on outmoded gender norms.
Having said for years there was no alternative to austerity, the Tories have suddenly found nearly £300 billion during the Covid crisis. We need to organise to make sure that women and the working class in general are not made to pay the price for that spending through future attacks on our living standards and services. The money already exists to increase funding on the things we need. Just a one-off wealth tax of 5% on net assets over £500,000 would immediately raise more than £260 billion.
That would be just a first step. By taking into public ownership the top 150 companies and banks and financial institutions which dominate the economy, running them under democratic working-class control and management, as part of a socialist planned economy, the resources could be released and society organised to ensure that the programme that has been outlined here could become a reality.
Discrimination, sexism and abuse are rooted in inequality and outdated ideas about gender roles. They can affect all women in society but working-class women are doubly oppressed as women and as workers.
Campaigns to raise awareness, educate, and change attitudes can have some effect. But we live in an unequal society - where a small minority owns the wealth; where exploiting women in low-paid, precarious jobs generates enormous profits for the capitalists; where the unpaid work that women do in the home saves capitalism billions of pounds every year.
Private companies which dominate and control the media, beauty, fashion, leisure and other industries continue to reflect and promote traditional expectations and norms about how women and men should look and behave, often turning women's bodies into commodities to make a profit.
Capitalism is based on inequality and competition. The capitalists and the politicians who represent them are prepared to resort to the use of power, force and violence to defend their interests and control - against protesters, strikers and in wars, for example. Those values have an impact more broadly in society and how we relate to each other.
As long as the capitalist system remains in place, discrimination, sexism and abuse will continue. The basis for ending them can only be brought about by a different system with alternative values, based on equality, cooperation and solidarity, in which the major companies are publicly owned and society is democratically planned in the interests of the majority - socialism.
The working class, because of the economic exploitation workers of all genders face in the workplace and the potential power they have to unite and act together to hit the profits of the capitalists, is central to changing society. Building a party based on the working class, with a programme for fundamental socialist change will be key.
This is what the Socialist Party is campaigning for. Join us in the fight for a future, here and internationally, free from inequality, poverty, exploitation, discrimination and oppression.
Planned economy (41)
Public ownership (148)
Article dated 3 March 2021
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
Lessons from history
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