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Committee Statements - TUC Women's Conference

Committee statements for TUC Women's Conference


Unequal impact of Covid-19 on women

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a stark light on the deep and persistent structural inequalities which cut across our country. Women have been disproportionately affected by the health, social and economic crises Covid-19 has created.

Women have borne the brunt of meeting rising care needs, are at increased risk of domestic abuse, face restrictions accessing sexual health and family planning services and are more likely to be affected by job losses at a time of economic instability. This is particularly the case for women whose lives are also shaped by other aspects of their identity. Black women, disabled women, LBT+ women and working-class women.

Women are on the frontline of this crisis, at work and at home

Nearly two-thirds of the UK’s 9.8 million key workers are women. They kept the health care system and our country moving as the pandemic hit its peak. And 2.6 million of these women key workers earn less than £10 an hour. The pandemic has highlighted the endemic low pay and occupational segregation faced by many women workers, particularly those in vital front-line jobs in sectors including social care and retail. Discrimination has left many female key workers at disproportionately high risk of exposure to Covid-19, working without properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) or access to PPE at all. Pregnant women have faced escalated workplace discrimination over this period, losing pay or work, with their health and safety poorly protected.

Women have also faced a disproportionate burden of unpaid care during the crisis. Necessary measures, such as the mass and prolonged closure of schools and childcare settings and social isolation restrictions that that prevent friends and family providing informal childcare support, has meant working parents have become full-time carers for their children. Due to the unequal division of unpaid labour in households, this has led to mums typically providing around two-thirds more childcare a day than dads. When social care services were closed, and millions were asked to shield at home, it was women who were left to fill the unpaid care gap. For too many women the impacts have been paid job loss and pay cuts.

Government’s response to the pandemic is deepening inequalities

At every stage of this pandemic the needs of women have been overlooked by government. Their response to coronavirus has not only failed to adequately address the structural inequalities women face, in many cases it has made them worse, costing women jobs, pay and vital financial support, and negatively impact their mental and physical health.

The government have a duty to consider the needs of and impact on women when developing policy. They should conduct equality impact assessments (EIAs) at the start of any decision making and use this information to ensure their decisions promote equality, eliminate discrimination and promote good relations – but too often during the pandemic equality has been an afterthought, if not completely forgotten.

Ministers’ approach to sick pay has left many women unable to afford to keep themselves safe if they are unwell or are asked to self-isolate. Two million low-paid workers are excluded from statutory sick pay, 70 per cent of these are low-paid women, many are Black or disabled. Women are caught in a double bind - they are more likely to be working in roles with a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus and also more likely to be without access to financial support if they become sick. Even for those who do qualify, statutory sick pay is paid at an extremely low rate. This should be raised to the level of the real living wage so that workers don’t bear an unacceptably high financial cost for being sick.

Self-employed mums who have taken maternity leave have lost out financially under an unfair and discriminatory calculation process in the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS) that treats maternity leave as holiday.

A lack of a temporary right to furlough for working parents, forced many mums to reduce their hours at work or leave the workplace altogether as nearly three quarters (72 per cent)of employers refused to furlough mums that requested it.

The long-standing underfunding of care services continues to have disproportionate impact on women. Frontline workers who have been forced to put their lives on the line to care for others are left with poverty pay and insecure work.

Women and disabled workers who want to return to work find they cannot as vital services and support are not available. Women are more likely to work in sectors shutdown by restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus – from beauty, arts, hospitality and leisure. But the government’s plans for our economic recovery focus investment in male-dominated sectors such as construction. Investing in a care-led recovery would create 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction: 6.3 as many for women and 10 per cent more for men. Giving all care workers a pay rise to the real living wage would create 2 million jobs, increasing overall employment rates by 5 percentage points and decreasing the gender employment gap by 4 percentage points. Alongside this, ministers must recognise the vital infrastructure role the childcare sector plays and invest in it accordingly. There is also a real opportunity to address occupational segregation, not least in making high quality jobs in the green economy genuinely accessible to everyone.

Government must act now to tackle structural inequality faced by women. That means fixing our broken parental leave system, giving all parents ten days paid parental leave, scrapping the qualifying threshold for statutory sick pay and ensuring no worker is excluded from accessing vital financial support.

There are many wider changes we also need to see. We must tackle gender pay gaps and extend this work to include ethnicity and disability pay gaps. We need new mandatory requirements on employers to report on pay gaps experienced by Black and disabled workers alongside action plans focusing on all three groups to address the causes of these gaps. And genuine flexible working must become a day one right to have, for everyone.

The government’s woeful response has failed to promote equality, and too often has further undermined it. But unions know that a fairer economy will also be a stronger one. By organising on the ground, and forcing government to act, we will not rest until equality has been achieved for everyone. The pandemic has set out the scale of the structural inequality we face, and the case for change is stronger than ever. In order to build back better, we need to build back fairer. Equality must be at the heart of any roadmap out of the pandemic.

Ending gender-based violence

Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the evidence has shown all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic abuse, has intensified. Incidents of violence adversely impact women’s ability to access, remain and advance in the labour market.

Violence against women and girls is rooted in structural inequalities that result from unequal value afforded to men and women and an unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunity. As such, it is a core trade union issue and one that affects workers safety, health and dignity.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women continue to occur on streets, in workplaces, in public spaces and online. Lockdown and enforced home working have shaped some women's experience of sexual harassment at work, with harassment via emails and virtual meetings increasing. Reported instances of sexual harassment at work do not reflect its true prevalence. Ending it will require women coming together to challenge male-dominated structures—whether in the workplace, in education, in our movement or in public and digital spaces.

Reported instances of sexual harassment at work do not reflect the true prevalence of sexual harassment. 51 per cent of women experience sexual harassment at work. This means that no workplace is free of sexual harassment and the trade union movement is no exception to this. As a movement, we have led on campaigning for safer workplaces free from violence and harassment. Now we want to take the lead on developing a preventative approach, starting with workplaces for union workers and officials.  

Significant progress has been made in recent years to address the underrepresentation of women in our movement, and to end the everyday sexism and sexual harassment that women encounter. The TUC Women’s Committee have driven action on this issue and achieved significant progress but this is unfinished business.

That is why, the TUC and its affiliated unions have initiated a programme of work that offers practical support on how to prevent, tackle and effectively respond to sexual harassment and drive widespread cultural change. This work will be led by the TUC President, Gail Cartmail, as chair of a new executive committee working group with support from TUC Women’s Committee chair, Sue Ferns.

The EC sexual harassment working group will bring together a small working group of leaders responsible for progressing this programme of work. The working group will have three aims that deliver on our shared commitment to equality, respect and a safe working environment for all.

  1. Support union leaders to deliver meaningful cultural change that creates safe and inclusive working environment free from harassment for trade union employees
  2. Ensure unions have robust internal policies and procedures to prevent and respond to sexual harassment within their organisations
  3. Ensure cultural change is part of a broader endeavour to address the underrepresentation of women and minoritized groups within the trade union movement; identifying and tackling power imbalances; increasing women’s agency and power within union workplaces and the wider movement; and addressing inequality.

This programme of work is intended to energise, and make effective, the transformation demanded by women in our movement and progress the General Council statement of 2018 that recognised the role trade union leaders must play in delivering on our shared aim to end sexual harassment.

We are determined that the Executive Committee sexual harassment work group will mark another important chapter in the history of our trade union movement’s fight for equality and the end of gender-based violence, and that it will be a powerful force for change. Demonstrating that our unions are willing and able to take the lead and win change for women working in our movement and outside of it too.

Lobbying continues to demand a new, easily enforceable legal duty requiring employers to take all reasonable steps to protect workers from sexual harassment and victimisation and the ratification of ILO Convention No.190. Until all women are free from the threat of violence and harassment, none of us are truly free.

Support for survivors in the workplace

Domestic abuse sits within a wider, systemic experience of violence against women and girls, at home, in the workplace, in education and public and digital spaces. Such behaviour is more likely to occur in environments where everyday sexism thrives.  Trade unionists know that domestic abuse has a huge impact on a woman’s working life. Trade unions have long campaigned for better support in the workplace for survivors and negotiated for workplace policies. During the pandemic, the TUC and affiliated unions produced toolkits and webinars for reps and members on how to support members, spot signs of and help stop domestic abuse.

Trade unions have lobbied government to make amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill. This landmark Bill will help transform the multi-agency response to domestic abuse, helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need. Survivors need a strong employment rights framework that protects and maintains their economic and financial security, that must include:

  1. Ten days paid leave for survivors of domestic abuse, to be taken flexibly as required
  2. A domestic abuse policy in every workplace
  3. Mandatory training for all staff, developed with recognised trade unions and specialist VAWG services where possible

UNISON have successfully secured a joint amendment to the bill ensuring Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPOs) are extended to the workplace, meaning a perpetrator cannot legally go near a victim/survivor at home, on her way to work or whilst at work.

However, women with insecure immigration status continue to be excluded from the Domestic Abuse Bill. Insecure immigration status is often a tool of control used by perpetrators to abuse their partners and threat them with deportation. This situation puts migrant women in a vulnerable position: they fear the abuser and also fear asking for help. The lack of safe reporting mechanisms for migrant women is a barrier to seeking help and fleeing abuse. The establishment of safe reporting mechanisms is an essential step forward to improve crime reporting both in the interest of the public and community safety, as well as greater access to justice for victims. No woman’s migration status should trump her right to live in safety.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even where her shackles are very different from my own.” – Audre Lorde

Strengthening women’s rights and representation at work

Across the world, women do not experience economic, political, or social equality with men. Gender inequality underpins many problems which disproportionately affect women and girls, such as domestic and sexual violence, lower pay and insecurity at work, and poverty. Discrimination, lack of access to education and inadequate healthcare stop women from having control over the decisions affecting their lives, including bodily autonomy. The impact on Black, disabled and LBT+ women is particularly severe.

The trade union movement has always viewed this oppression as political and structural, not individual, and organised against it, using the most powerful tool we have at our disposal - collective bargaining.

Division of unpaid labour

Globally, women work as many hours as men, if not more, but because we carry the burden of unpaid work, we have fewer hours to participate in paid work. This denies women our equality and economic empowerment.

In countries where unpaid childcare and domestic work is more evenly shared between men and women, there are more equal levels of participation in paid work and the positive impacts are felt by employers, workers and the wider economy.

Unions can promote women’s economic empowerment by lobbying for legislative changes that encourage greater equality in care giving. These include reforming the parental leave system, supporting employees to exercise their legal rights such as the right to request flexible work and negotiating specific workplace terms and conditions of employment such as paid parental leave for dads and mums.

Unions must enable and maintain the systematic integration of women’s needs and demands in collective bargaining, equipping unions reps with tools to negotiate effectively on behalf of women. So that we can continue to effectively challenge occupational segregation, unequal pay and the institutionalised undervaluing of women’s work. And to ensure that our workplaces are safe, supportive and comfortable spaces for women.

Representation at work and in the movement

As a majority-female movement, we have the knowledge and legitimacy to represent women’s concerns and priorities, but there is work to do to ensure women are fully represented and have power at all levels of our movement, and ensure equality is fully integrated in collective bargaining priorities and agendas.

Women trade unionists have always been at the forefront of fighting for workers’ rights. History has shown that trade unions, particularly the women that build and lead our movement, are a vital catalyst for gender equality and the realisation of women’s rights. From grassroots organising to advocacy and campaigning, trade unions are uniquely placed to mobilise and empower women to come together to know and claim our rights.

Women have made considerable gains within our leadership and democratic structures, and now outnumber men in the movement. We are increasingly holding positions at all levels across the movement. In the last decade, five out of ten TUC Presidents have been women, both leaders of the European Trade Union Confederation and the International Trade Union Confederation are currently women, and within the UK movement we have more than 15 female general secretaries.

Despite this progress, women remain proportionally under-represented in union-leadership roles and women in unions face many of the same barriers as our sisters in other sectors. There is more we can and must do to make sure women get more involved at every level of our movement, from becoming representatives and convenors to getting elected to senior positions of influence, including as general secretaries.

Empowering all women

The work towards women’s rights must be intersectional. We know that oppression is interlinked and many women face multiple barriers to equality because they are Black, disabled, LBT+ or hold a particular religion or belief. The multiple and interlinked forms of discrimination these women experience shapes and structures their lives.

Trade unions have always known fighting racism must go hand in hand with the fight against sexism and other forms of oppression women face. In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter, it is more urgent than ever that we approach our fight for gender equality with an intersectional lens.

For our movement to be truly successful and representative, inclusivity must be at its core. As we increase women’s representation, power and agency at work and in our movement, we must ensure the women that lead our movement are as diverse as the membership we represent. Targeted action is needed to address the underrepresentation of Black, LBT+ and disabled women, ensuring they too shape and lead the trade unions and organisations they help build.

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