Working to economic progress for women

Have we reached a crossroads in Scotland at least with Scottish Government’s new economic strategy? Will economic policy keep equality at its heart as intended? In the long run, how we measure progress on equality in the Scottish economy has to change because measures like GDP are inadequate for reflecting the lives we live and the roles we perform, paid and unpaid. In the short-term, what can politicians do to put equality at the heart of their plans for economic progress, particularly for the forthcoming general elections? We consider the answer from a gender perspective.

The Scottish Women’s Budget Group (SWBG) has long argued the economic system is broken. The fundamental flaw is the system for measuring economic progress fails to recognise and account adequately for women’s contributions, paid and unpaid. In particular, unpaid care, done mostly by women remains invisible and unaccounted for in GDP and the system of national accounts.

Women are bearing the brunt of austerity and the Westminster government’s policy responses are increasingly harmful to women’s wellbeing. So, while men stand to benefit from the tax giveaways of personal tax allowance increases and transferrable tax allowances, a recent Fawcett Society report showed 85% of cuts to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions since 2010 have come from women’s incomes.

Yet most analysis and debate amongst politicians and other key actors ignores the impact of government decisions on women in general and unpaid care in particular – despite unpaid care being the glue that supports the formal economy. For example, the recently published Centre for Labour and Social Sciences (CLASS) booklet asks ‘What’s at stake for work, pay and unions?’ In its foreword, Frances O’Grady argues the general election is ‘a chance to reject a broken economic system’. The booklet, however, maintains the established concept of the economy in arguing ‘the economy must work for all working people’.

SWBG agrees the economic system is broken and believes it should work for everyone, including those whose contribution is unpaid. Economic analysis that reflects waged work only, ensures that care and women’s unpaid contribution to care and provisioning for waged workers will remain invisible, unaccounted for and overlooked in measures of economic analysis, despite their importance. Marginal Eyes, a short satirical film, launched this International Women’s Day by Engender is a sharp take on this.

Government spending cuts have had the harshest impact on women, both as workers and service users. This is compounded by the effects of Scottish government’s council tax freeze. Several factors combine to push women back into gendered roles within households while still trying to maintain household incomes through low paid, vulnerable jobs (including jobs losses in the public sector previously held by women who are the majority of public sector employees, withdrawal of public services, downward pressure on wages and social security reforms).

The aforementioned Fawcett Society report clearly shows how significant flaws in Job Seekers’ Allowance mean the ‘distinctive circumstances of many women’s lives’ of caring, low paid jobs and the risk of domestic and sexual violence are not recognised. One consequence has been large numbers amongst some groups of women experiencing sanctions, particularly lone parents. The report suggests high levels of successful appeals against sanctions are due to the unreasonable or inappropriate nature of the sanctions in the first instance.

In the world of paid employment, despite acknowledged gains, we are still a far cry from realising equal pay for equal work and legal and financial independence (which were key original demands of the women’s liberation movement). Ongoing equal pay disputes with Scottish local authorities still involve tens of thousands, denying women the earnings they are due. The introduction of Employment Tribunal fees further reduces women’s access to justice for equal pay and other sex discrimination claims. These present a formidable list for union action.

Political parties vying for women’s votes must do much better than capping child benefit as a deficit reduction measure or sticking doggedly to current spending plans. There is a long list of actions to advance equality, eliminate discrimination, and mitigate the excesses of austerity, some of which are: reverse tribunal fees, introduce mandatory pay audits, include equality clauses in public procurement contracts, ensure recourse to public funds for asylum seekers and refugees, and make better use of the transformational potential of the Public Sector Equality Duty and holding public authorities to account.

Having the political courage to implement an alternative approach to equality and economic policy is essential for creating a more sustainable and inclusive economy and society. Policies based on feminist and heterodox economic analyses will re-focus long-term investment policies and put the caring sector at their heart. This means investment, not just in the physical infrastructure of school building, childcare centres, hospitals and care homes, but also in the publicly funded workforce required to deliver these essential services, guaranteeing them much better terms and conditions of work that are key for high quality services. These measures would build the social infrastructure and human and social capital of the UK and its constituent countries.

The UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Groups are calling for Plan F as an alternative to austerity. It is a set of feminist policies aimed at creating a caring and sustainable economy which offers better conditions and pay for care workers and more support for unpaid carers looking after family and friends. Plan F core demands that could be funded by non-renewal of Trident, reversing tax giveaways and expanding the tax base from participation in paid work are:

• Reversing cuts to public services and social security that have adverse impacts on women
• Reforming plans for Universal Credit
• Investing in social infrastructure – care, health, education and training services, social security and housing, complemented by investment in renewable energy and environmentally friendly public transport.
• Ensuring access to affordable care and improving the terms and conditions of work for the paid work (leading to better quality care).
• Strengthening worker’s rights including collective bargaining rights and raising the minimum wage to a level that ensures a decent living.
• Improving support for people – currently mainly women – who provide unpaid care in families and communities. Men should also be supported to contribute more to unpaid care, for instance through well-funded care leave schemes and a reduction in full-time working hours.
• Creating a social security system that aims at fairer sharing of caring and the costs of caring.
• Increasing investment in social housing and in insulating homes

In fixing a broken economic system we need to develop a caring economy that nurtures individuals, recognises 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 key political actors in unions. They are also the kinds of measures that should fit well with the Scottish Government’s new economic strategy, with its twin pillars of competitiveness and equality. There should be no more ‘business as usual’ and a long-term aspiration to ensure that women count properly in measures of economic wellbeing.

Angela O’Hagan and Morag Gillespie, Scottish Women’s Budget Group.
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