Great Britain

The impacts of crises are rarely gender-neutral

WE SHOULD never forget that the seeds of International Women’s Day grew out of our labour movement. 

The origins of IWD emerged from thousands of working women marching through the streets of New York to demand a shorter working week, better pay and the right to vote. 

This year’s IWD theme of #ChooseToChallenge is not a new concept for trade union women. 

For centuries — although not always recorded in our history books — working women have fought an array of battles and challenged injustice, inequality, discrimination and the patriarchal system that we live under. 

IWD presents an opportunity to celebrate and empower the women around us, reflect on the past struggles and achievements of women and, crucially, organise for a better, safer, equal and more just future for all women and girls. 

The past year has sent the world into complete turmoil. And although many people all over the world have been riding a similar storm, they are doing so in very different boats. 

Some have had the privilege of a lifejacket to keep them afloat, while thousands of others, predominantly women, are sinking. 

Covid-19 has magnified women’s inequality and exposed that, while the virus itself might not discriminate against women, our economy, society and world of work does. 

The impacts of crises are rarely gender-neutral, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Women have been the unsung heroes of this crisis. 

Seventy per cent of our front-line key workers in the UK are women. 

Women are far more likely to be in low-paid, insecure and exploitative work and working in industries that have been forced to close. 

It is women who have lost their jobs and are facing redundancies and job insecurity at a higher rate than men. 

It is women whose caring responsibilities during the crisis have soared. It is women who have taken on 60 per cent of childcare responsibilities during Covid-19. 

It is women who are being forced to take unpaid early maternity. And it is women who have been significantly impacted by a rise of gender-based violence during the lockdown and have had to seeking refuge. 

As the trade union, labour and feminist movements across the world rally to celebrate International Women’s Day, it is with a heavy heart reflecting on the lives of our sisters and families that have been lost due to the pandemic. 

But also, with hope and inspiration as we consider the opportunities for engaging women to our movement, organising to build power and winning for women everywhere. 

The pandemic hit Britain months into the election of a Conservative government that has made no secret of its priority for equality as policies were rolled out to tackle geographical inequality rather than the barriers facing women. 

Women have already borne the brunt of Britain’s austerity agenda as gender inequality was baked into the system long before the virus came around. 

And that is why, now more than ever, we need an organised, united, and relevant trade union movement that places equality and women at its core, to combat rising injustices and to build an economy that works for all. 

Our movement must be truly inclusive and take an intersectional approach to all our work ensuring that decisions and policies recognise the multiple discriminations in society.

Women’s voices must be front and centre of the trade union movement and in decision-making. 

As the first female leader of the Scottish TUC in over 125 years, it is my absolute mission to ensure our movement reflects the very people we seek to represent, and that women, in particular, feel empowered, supported and energised to use their voices and skills to help strengthen our movement and create a real force for change. 

On International Women’s Day I would like to celebrate and pay tribute to the women in our movement today who have campaigned, supported and led key victories in Scotland to ensure better pay, equal pay and tackle poverty and discrimination. 

From the magnificent EIS value education march and their significant pay rise victory campaign for all teachers; and the ground-breaking equal pay strike and win against Glasgow City Council; to the fight to make Period Poverty History in Scotland with the implementation of free sanitary product provision into law for all who need them — all these campaigns, and more, have resulted in making a tangible change in women’s lives in Scotland.

It was women in our movement in Scotland who were at the forefront leading these campaigns and keeping these issues on the agenda. 

They are also an inspiration to our movement that investing resources into organising workers, not just recruiting them, is essential to win. 

They are an example of women and unions choosing to collectively challenge the system, and winning. 

Ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in May, the STUC has been quick to prioritise key areas that are essential to improve women’s lives and we are demanding that political parties take action on pay, action on care and action for jobs. 

Campaigning for investment in public services and increases in public-sector pay will see immediate gains for women across the health and social care sector, education, local authority and Civil Service. 

Women are more likely to live in lone-parent households and often face poverty as they lack access to affordable childcare and decent jobs. 

We are calling on the Scottish government to implement free school meals for all nursery children and those of primary and secondary age. 

This investment would help tackle the discrimination and hunger faced by those families living in poverty.

We know that the bulk of caring in our society falls to women in both paid and unpaid work. 

We have to make the case for a radical shift in care provision in Scotland, starting with a national care service that would end the profiteering in our care sector, introduce collective bargaining and drive up wages. 

We are not short of issues facing women and girls in Scotland and beyond. We must all continue to #choosetochallenge the inequalities, injustice and discrimination women face and on IWD re-energise our campaigning, policy and collective efforts to raise the voices of women, celebrate the achievements of women and join women’s struggle and fight for a better world for women and girls. 

Roz Foyer is general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

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