International Women’s Day 2021: A woman’s place is in her union

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On International Women's Day, Wales TUC General Secretary Shavanah Taj argues that women deserve a feminist, intersectional recovery. But it will only be achieved if women workers are at the heart of recovery plans and at the decision-making tables.

A woman’s place is in her union. As a woman general secretary in our labour movement, sharing a space with other women at the forefront of organising and campaigning to protect workers' rights makes me feel immensely proud of how far we have come, but equally driven to end inequalities like sexism once and for all.

As trade unionists, we strive for a labour market that is better, fairer and excludes no one. We’re facing a lot of challenges to this right now, but two stand out on International Women’s Day – making sure that workers are properly rewarded for what they did in the pandemic and how we can achieve a green recovery defined by equality of outcome.

A sexist crisis

Many have recognised that those who were already excluded or held back by our jobs market have been hardest hit by the economic aspects of the crisis. This is especially the case for women, with the global recession characterised by the fact that more women have lost jobs than men. And as ever, this is worse for those women who face multiple forms of discrimination. For example, 1 in 20 women are now unemployed, but this rises to 1 in 10 for women from a BME background.

And while the furlough scheme has been very successful in protecting jobs, it could still go further to protect women’s jobs in particular. A recent TUC survey showed that 7 in 10 working mums had a furlough request turned down during the latest round of school closures. 9 in 10 reported increased stress and anxiety, and around half were worried that they would be treated negatively by their boss because of their childcare responsibilities. The government’s failure to respond to our calls to introduce a temporary right to furlough for parents and those with caring responsibilities shows a total disregard for many women’s experiences in this crisis.

But it’s not just the recession that has demonstrated women’s economic vulnerability. After a decade of austerity, women are again being failed by the UK Government. No one is in doubt about the tremendous role that NHS and social care workers played to keep the country safe during this pandemic, but last week’s Budget was an absolute failure to recognise and reward this. All our key workers, public sector workers who’ve kept the wheels of our country turning deserve a decent pay rise, and we won’t stop fighting until this is achieved.

A feminist recovery

There is a real sense of optimism emerging thanks to the very successful vaccination programme the NHS is delivering. But we can’t lose sight of the commitment to build back better. We need public investment throughout the UK which delivers great jobs, but explicitly high quality, equitable jobs for women.

We are starting with the right foundations in Wales. We have ground-breaking law already in place with the Future Generations Act. We have enacted the Socio-Economic Duty and we strongly welcomed the publication of the Social Partnership and Public Procurement Bill last month. Again, Wales will be leading the way to make sure public bodies create a fairer, just society.

But passing this legislation is just the start of what we need to do to challenge a jobs market that continues to discriminate against women. We need to manage every step of the recovery effort in order to grab hold of every opportunity to challenge inequality.

For example, we have called for Wales’s recovery to be driven by green infrastructure investment. Jobs like these are still usually held by men. First we need to put the right policies in place to make sure any public investment will lead to good jobs, but then we need to work as unions, government and employers to make sure that we have a diverse pool of candidates applying for the relevant training, and fair and inclusive recruitment practices in place. Without this, we risk a green recovery built on labour exploitation and exclusion.

We also need to challenge some of the misconceptions about people’s experiences in the pandemic. Home working does not equate to flexible working, and confusing the two does a particular disservice to many women’s experiences over the last 12 months. Juggling care work and paid employment has disproportionately hit women.

But there’s also the fact our employers effectively remained in charge of whether we worked from home or not. Some employers did not invest in the resources to enable their staff to work from home; and for some women this resulted in them being forced out of a job. This is why we don’t simply want to retain what has happened in this pandemic. Let’s learn from it and make it better. Every worker deserves a genuine right to flexible work.

Women deserve a feminist, intersectional recovery, but it will only be achieved if women workers are at the heart of recovery plans and at the decision-making tables. We are calling on leaders everywhere to recognise this and work with trade unions to make sure we rebuild our economy to recover from both the pandemic and entrenched inequality.