Equalities news

Women | 13.06.2012

TUC 2012 Women's Conference: Every woman, in every workplace, stronger together

Held at Congress House this 82nd Women’s Conference was attended by over 280 delegates, which included the four POA women representatives of the Equalities Committee; Barbara Baker, Anne Ruzylo, Su Akram and Helen Hutchinson. The theme of taking a stand against the vicious cuts agenda permeated the two days, whilst being held at a time of great hardship for ordinary women and their families.

The Conference was chaired by Max Hyde, the recently elected Junior Vice-President of the NUT, who will be NUT President in 2014. A teacher of physics and chemistry since 1977 and elected to the National Executive in 1996, she describes herself as a ‘science ambassador’ and believes the country needs the best scientists and mathematicians, not just those who are rich enough to aff ord to go to university.

Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, who recently gave notice of his intention to retire, gave a short opening address. His statement that ‘women need unions and unions need women’ was applauded.

Women bearing the brunt of proposed cuts

Many of the motions this year pertained to the cuts - all £2.37 billion - of which 73 percent was coming from women and families, either directly or indirectly - through job losses and cuts to benefi ts and services. At the end of 2011, women’s unemployment was the highest for 25 years. The consensus was that PLAN ‘A’ HAD FAILED! And that a plan ‘F’(eminst) was needed.

It was pointed out that so far, only 12 percent of the cuts programme had been delivered so there is far more pain on the way. The impact on women is threefold:

• Women make up the majority of public sector workers whose jobs are being cut
• It is women who mainly rely on cut services (advice centres, refuges, children’s centres) and
• Women carry out the bulk of elder and child care.

The whole cuts agenda is perceived as the most sustained attack on women in a generation - and one intended to drive us back to the kitchen sink! A leaked document from No.10 Downing St. recently highlighted that the Government is worried about their claims to be ‘women and family - friendly’ have backfired and that they intend to launch a ‘charm-off ensive’ on women voters. Recent local elections would appear to suggest that this policy has also dramatically failed!

More voluntary compliance

In addition, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has been scaled down; and plans to close the grants programme will eff ectively prevent hundreds of community groups fi ghting plans which discriminate against them.

Also, systematic watering down of the Equality Act (see the RED TAPE challenge) appears to (though not actually) dilute the necessity of organisations to consider the impact of policy and practices on minority groups.

• This Government clearly does not want workers to know their rights
• This Government views the Equality Act as unnecessary and wants more voluntary compliance.

Equality Impact assessments are no longer mandatory - despite being a much lauded tool in previous times - and amounts to ‘gesture policies’ which states implicitly that public authorities should not listen to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It also implies irresponsibility, offering less clear advice and putting the onus on the individual to claim his/her rights rather than having them protected by the state.

Workers perceived as disposable commodities

Conference voted for motions which condemned the Government’s reckless disregard of deepening inequality and reaffirmed that there is an alternative, including the collection of £120billion of avoided, evaded and uncollected tax from wealthy individuals and companies. Not a day goes by without a news report of another company managing to pay lower levels of tax than the average man in the street. That these attacks are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity becomes more starkly obvious day by day. One ideology not supported by this Government is that ‘Equality works and makes good business sense’ - rather, they fear it, as it threatens their capitalist ideals which places the working man and woman at the bottom of the pile, making money only for the bosses, as workers are perceived as disposable commodities.

Attack on pensions

As working families endure pay freezes and drops in living standards, bankers continue to take obscene bonuses, and high tax-rate payers see a drop in tax rates. Additionally, the attack on pensions has, this year, led to workers finally making their feelings known and taking industrial action which leaves the Government in no doubt. The strikes by public sector workers received huge support. The fact that two thirds of women pensioners rely on pension credits makes the UK one of the worst providers for pensioners in Europe. To add insult to injury, the Government’s decision to accelerate the increase in women’s State Pension Age will aff ect many thousands of women who will have to work much longer in order to receive their basic state pension.

For many women, this is likely to be very difficult or even impossible because of their own health problems and/or even their caring responsibilities, which can be dually realised in relation to both children and elders. The attacks on pensions, which look more and more like an intention to dismantle pensions schemes, is driving pension entitlement backwards but also will ultimately make privatisation easier. Ideology at work again. There is no doubt that time spent in opposition was well used by this Tory Government. To quote the Morning Star - ‘the role of mass unemployment is to neuter the trade unionists and to reduce workers employed, if at all, to low pay rates, poor conditions and few employment rights.’ Sound familiar?

Services for women experiencing violence

‘EVERY WOMAN SAFE EVERYWHERE’ panel discussion focussed largely on the eff ect of the cuts on the provision of services for women experiencing violence of all kinds. This impact is huge as funding is no longer guaranteed; 60 women are turned away from refuges every day; changes to policy and organisations is creating chaos as no-one accepts responsibility for the commissioning of these services.

Also discussed were the changes in employment law which basically will off er LESS employee protection and equates to abuse of democracy, as women and men will fi nd it increasingly harder to access justice. The fact that European laws require competitive tendering processes delivers massive cuts to employers, driving down wages; as workers’ economic position deteriorates, increase in domestic violence is inevitable (recent increase of 35 percent). This is the path CHOSEN by this Government - the fi fth richest nation in the world.

The only way to protest is to continue to strike and protest about the austerity measures, as cuts are directly aff ecting women’s safety, which is not a luxury. And to insist that services remain statutory, with ring-fenced funding, as other countries in the EU do. That our society condones and normalises the sexualisation of women, supported by all branches of the media, makes violence against women a major problem, hugely aff ecting their safety in society. www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk for the report: ‘A diff erent world is possible’ - we need a revolution in this arena.

Equal treatment on trade union rights

Motion 15 - Barbara Baker (Babs) moved this motion: ‘Equal treatment on trade union rights’ and had unions queuing to support! Babs delivered her speech with passion, deliberation and power! (See the POA website at www.poauk.org.uk) for more information. Later in the Conference, Babs was also elected to serve on the TUC Women’s Committee for the year - the fi rst POA member to do this! It came as somewhat of a shock for unionists to hear the draconian laws which still shackle this Union, as well as the threats of bullying and intimidation members and executive endure repeatedly. Well done Babs!

Trade unions and human rights in Columbia

Emergency Motion 3 - supported by the POA (Helen Hutchinson spoke) - Trade unions and human rights in Columbia. This concerned a Columbian political prisoner, Liliany Obando, visited by a delegation of unionists, including POA, who was falsely imprisoned without trial. As it happened, just days prior to Conference she was released and video footage of her was shown to delegates. It is good that unionists support solidarity action - Justice for Columbia and the TUC has maintained its campaigning and protesting for the last four years. Columbia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, and has high levels of inequality and violence against women. The POA’s speech called for all charges against Liliany to be dropped and for a peace process that allows people to organise without fear of assassination or imprisonment.

More issues and motions

Others issues and motions debated by conference included:

• NHS
• Abortion rights
• Remploy closures
• Legal Aid cuts
• Women’s role models (see the very interesting Miss Representation clip at http://vimeo.com/28066212)
• Women’s rights in the Middle East and Afghanistan
• Misogyny in the media
• Women in teaching
• Loan sharking and
• Cuts to railway services and staff.

Fringe meetings were well attended and debated issues around pensions, maternity rights, and sex workers, impact of cuts on women and black workers, and sexism in the media industry. Much debate about all these issues gave delegates valuable insight into the wider impact of the austerity measures being used by this Government to assert power over workers.

It gives further credence to the idea that their intention is to take advantage of the financial crisis sparked by the banks’ unsustainable speculation to force through changes to entrench capitalist advantage over the working class. In addition, that trimming the state, particularly public services, the NHS, pensions and benefits, is part of a strategy to hand over these areas to the private sector for profitable expansion. Did we ever doubt this?

What more evidence do we need to strengthen our belief that now, more than ever, that women need trade unions? And unions need women.

Encourage workers to join the fi ght, join the union - for strength IS in unity.

‘The most common way that people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any’

Alice Walker author of ‘The Colour Purple’