Thursday, March 06, 2008

Women's Equality: Forward not back!

by Daphne Liddle

PROGRESS is never smooth and even; we live in a dialectical world. But recently it seems the struggle for women’s equality has been going backwards and the evidence is all around us.
There were certain points of principle we fought to have enshrined in law to prevent discrimination against women at work, battles we thought were done and settled so we could move on to new issues.
The logical next battles were to get these laws actually implemented throughout the country. The general view was that big “respectable” employers – the public sector, major companies and so on, would all be aware of the laws and the battles would be with small-time rogue employers who were not up to scratch on employment laws.
This was always an illusion of course. But TV tycoon Alan Sugar shattered it a few weeks ago with his admission that he and many other bosses have binned job applications from women because anti-discrimination laws forbid employers asking women about whether they have or plan to have children.
The star of BBC2’s The Apprentice said pregnant women are “entitled to have too much” and called for a change in the law to allow employers to ask recruits if they are planning a child. He said: “These laws are counter-productive for women. You’re not allowed to ask so it’s easy – just don’t employ them.”
We had the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the course of remarks about Sharia law, implying that family law was a relatively trivial matter.
Then a “human resources” manager publicly claimed that women earn less than men because they prefer it that way; they’re just not so competitive.
Last week the Guardian reported that one third of mothers lose significant ground in their career paths simply as a result of being mothers. It’s not easy being competitive when you are carrying an extra burden of domestic and parental responsibility.
There are of course some men, in gradually increasing numbers, who do get more involved in domestic responsibilities but it is still the exception rather than the rule.
The result is that thousands of women still never get to fulfil their potential and have to make do with staying in the back seat of life while others decide what direction they will go in.
Of course working class men also have very little control over the course and direction of their working lives; working class women have the least control of all – either at work or in the home where they still do the lion’s share of the work.
According to the Office of National Statistics the gender pay gap fell to its lowest ever rate of 12.8 per cent between 2006 and 2007 comparing the median hourly rate paid to women with that for men.
This slight progress arises from some titanic equal pay battles won by public sector unions. But unfortunately some of these have resulted in major pay restructuring in NHS and local government pay that have seen the pay of some men reduced rather than women’s raised.
The median hourly rate for men went up 2.8 per cent to £11.96, while the rate for women increased by 3.1 per cent to £10.46.
But when we look at weekly earnings, according to the ONS, on the internationally comparable measure based on mean earnings, women’s average hourly pay (excluding overtime) was 17.2 per cent less than men’s pay, showing a decrease on the comparable figure of 17.5 per cent for 2006.
In 2007, median weekly earnings of full-time employees for women of £394 were 21 per cent less than those for men (£498), unchanged from 2006.
The major reason for the discrepancy is that women – because of their domestic responsibilities – are less able to work long or unsociable hours. Many with young children opt for part-time working and part time rates are always lower than full-time.
So women continue to pay a swingeing levy throughout their lives for deciding to become a parent while men do not.
But setting women and men against each other is playing the bosses’ game of divide and rule. The truth is that bosses like Alan Sugar want the world and everybody’s lives organised to make it as easy as possible for them to make as much profit as possible.
We are living in a bourgeois capitalist society that has a one-dimensional view of the human race, which is seen as existing only for the purpose of making money. All other human activity: family life, leisure, rest and relaxation are regarded as subordinate and dispensable in favour of that one purpose.
The bosses are so blinkered they do not see – or care – how one-dimensional and unbalanced our society is becoming. And though women workers suffer most from this discrimination, men workers also suffer.
Bosses take it absolutely for granted that male workers will invariable put their bosses’ needs before their family or any other interests. To modern capitalism families are a trivial hobby that workers must set aside when the boss requires it.
Yet the bourgeois media hypocritically blame parents and the failure of the “family” for all the ills of society.
Capitalism – in Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada and increasingly in Western Europe – does not need its indigenous working class to reproduce itself. In all these places industry is declining. What industry remains in the capitalist/imperialist heartlands is capital intensive – machines do most of the work. The biggest employers in these places are the finance, public and service sectors.
Imperialism deliberately blocks industrialisation in the poorest countries of Africa and Latin America – it wants to keep these places dependent on the imperialists for technology. Imperialism also dumps cheap subsidised food in these places, destroying local agricultural economies.
All this serves to put pressure on young African and Latin American workers to want to get out and emigrate to the imperialist heartlands in search of economic advancement.
Once again the capitalist media wail and moan about waves of economic migrants but they welcome the cheap and eager labour – already raised to adulthood and educated. The former socialist states of Eastern Europe are also now a rich source of high quality working class migrants. The bosses have no need for indigenous workers to take time and effort having children, raising them and educating them.
So we now have an anti-child culture, where women are warned in advance that having children will ruin their lives, exhaust them and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to rear. Few women’s pages in the newspapers or magazines now mention any joys associated with parenthood. Maternity services are seriously reduced; childbirth becomes lonely, frightening and dangerous with not enough midwives, hospital beds or support. Childcare provision is patchy and expensive yet mothers are expected back at work as quickly as possible.
Those in a proper job with a trade union may get their full entitlement to maternity leave and be allowed to ask the boss for more flexible hours. But in the minimum wage service sector – women working in shops, restaurants, hotels and so on no such concessions are made. London buses carrying workers home are crammed from before dawn until midnight and beyond with exhausted men and women, mothers and fathers and there are always a few with pushchairs and fretful babies who’ve been picked up from official or unofficial baby-minders at God-knows-what hour. It’s a long way from the civilised seven o’clock bedtimes with mum or dad reading a story to soothe the little one to sleep of the middle class household.
Once the children are grown a little, the media portrays them all as potential monsters. Once schools were able to offer after-hours activities but pay and teacher cuts in the 1980s did away with most of that. The National Curriculum and constant testing and examinations keep children’s noses to the grindstone, leaving no time for hobbies or cultural pursuits and the social development that goes with that and brings adult confidence.
Our children grow up deprived of their cultural heritage because capitalism doesn’t want them wasting time on that sort of thing when they should be learning how to improve the bosses’ profits.
Children are regarded as a menace if they gather in groups to chat among themselves or play out of doors. Shopping malls now install devices that emit a high pitched whine – inaudible to adults – simply to drive children a way. This amounts to punishing children by the deliberate infliction of discomfort simply for the crime of being young.
They see little of their overworked parents and have little ordinary social interaction with adults. The adult world of profit-making has no time for them; they are a nuisance and should go away. No wonder so many children are seriously depressed. And when they are old enough, no wonder they are reluctant to become parents.
The root cause of this worsening situation is the increasing rate of exploitation of the whole working class. New gadgets and gizmos around the house, designer furniture, laminate flooring, computers, giant HD televisions, MP3 players and so may give the illusion that workers’ standards of living are improving. It is not so.
A century ago a worker – usually a man – could earn enough to keep himself, his wife and a large family of children housed, fed and clothed. Working hours were long but not as long as today. Now two partners working all the hours they can cannot earn enough to keep up with massive housing debts, not to mention credit card and other debts. Their homes may look like palaces but they have no time to enjoy them and many are convinced they cannot afford to have children.
Half a century ago people worked nine-to-five and thought that was onerous. They had tea breaks and lunch breaks that lasted at least an hour. When the clock struck five people were out of the door and did not give their work another thought until nine o’clock the next day. They had time for their families, to go out and about. Weekends were for gardening, pottering about, lazing or even trips to the seaside.
Ironically workers who are more rested and relaxed are far more productive and make fewer mistakes than those who are tired and always under pressure.
Nominally wages are higher but we’ve lost time to rest and relax. Debts keep our noses to the grindstone; holidays and outings are postponed until they are forgotten. Our working lives rush by and suddenly we find ourselves too old and tired to enjoy those leisure occasions we have deferred so often and so long. We have to surrender our most modest daydreams of easier days to come as pension cuts mean continued working into old age, followed by declining health and the prospect of totally inadequate support services. Mobile phones and emails mean the boss can be on our backs at any time of night or day. No wonder so many workers, men and women, are seriously depressed.
At least most of the readers of this paper have involvement in the fight back to sustain our morale but many workers now, especially the young, are totally alienated from political – or any other involvement because their work demands all their time, thought and energy.
Yet most of the products of all this frantic work are of little use to most people. Modern technology would allow us to produce enough of the basic necessities and quite a few luxuries to meet the requirements of every child, woman and man on this planet with much less work – and much less using up of the world’s resources. It is only capitalism’s frantic need for ever increasing profits that drives the madness machine.
The fight for equal pay for women and changes to employment patterns to suit the needs of people rather than profit will leave all workers and their children better off and more rested and relaxed. No political or economic system can guarantee individual happiness but we can remove some of the biggest sources of human misery.
We must demand that the state recognises that rearing a child is the job of more than one exhausted woman – it requires the involvement of fathers, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, health visitors, doctors, child minders, crèches, play leaders, youth clubs, park keepers, school crossings supervisors, neighbours, friends and many more.
Employment laws should allow all parents more time off to be with their children; no parents should be required to work unsocial hours in the evenings or at weekends and their pay should still be enough to keep them out of debt.
We must step back from the 24/7 society. Not many jobs really need to be done all the time – emergency services, caring for the sick and vulnerable, maintaining water and electricity supplies – apart from those most jobs could revert to reasonable closing times.
We must re-examine what is meant by flexible hours and recognise that this “benefit” has robbed us of proper tea and dinner breaks and the chance to chat that goes with that. “Flexi” must be to our benefit and not the bosses’.
Bosses must be told that whether they employ men or women they are just as likely to face demands for time off to attend to the needs of children and that women are not cheap labour.
Family law must be changed so that workers who are parents can decide to engage in or end partnerships according to their needs without economic penalties for themselves of their children. There must be no one trapped in a bad marriage because they fear impoverishment or homelessness.
And of course there must be vastly improved safe, high quality childcare facilities that really are affordable and allow both parents equal chances to pursue their careers.
These targets may seem a long way off under capitalism. But in striving for them we will be helping to make an impelling case for getting rid of capitalism and replacing it with socialism. And all socialist countries – even the ones that failed – have from the very beginning achieved huge advances towards these aims.