Women are facing a silent, pernicious crisis

Labour Party

The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality has called for a halt to budget cuts,  particularly cuts in social expenditure that affect women more than men.

In a resolution the Committee approved a set of proposals to address the impact of the crisis on gender equality including investing in lifelong training and new jobs, public transport, and developing child care facilities.

Women have been punished twice since the start of the economic crisis, by losing their jobs and working part-time. Austerity measures and cuts in the public budget, unemployment, temporary work and low salaries affect women more than men.

The resolution’s rapporteur told the Women’s Committee that women are facing a silent, pernicious crisis which worsens their condition. Even before the crisis more women than men were affected by unemployment, precarious work, part-time work, low wages and slow careers. Today, as a result of austerity policies, they suffer a double punishment. This is an issue at the heart of political equality and employment. 

Women leaving employment or reducing their hours as a result of cuts in social security benefits and welfare infrastructure, such as education, childcare, health and care services, have further feminised poverty. Part-time employment has a long term impact, not only diminishing income, but pensions as well. Committee members believed that despite unemployment rates for men and women being comparable, the crisis affects the latter differently: working conditions for women have become considerably more insecure, their income has diminished, part-time and fixed-term jobs have grown to the detriment of more stable employment.

MEPs called on the European Commission to oppose budget cuts, especially in the public sector, to social security benefits and social welfare, education and childcare services. We also called for an action plan for better childcare, developing company and inter-company crèches. The Committee also reiterated its demand for the promotion of female entrepreneurship by facilitating women’s access to microcredits as well as for improving public transport policy to enable women to be truly mobile and to achieve a better work-life balance.

Majority of Conservative MEPs oppose greater Gender Equality

Labour Party

Every year, at the request of the European Council, a report is produced on the progress towards the achievement of gender equality in the EU. It also presents challenges and priorities for the future. This year my fellow Socialist and Democrat (S&D) member in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Marc Tarabella, took the lead on this report in the European Parliament. He went on to produce a very comprehensive and coherent document which was voted on during the plenary session in Strasbourg last week.

In his report, Tarabella tried to highlight  in particular the different ways that the economic and financial crisis has affected women’s circumstances. Women were not initially hardest hit by the crisis, because the sectors that they dominate are mainly the public services, for instance health and education. However, in recent months the public sector has suffered terribly as a result of the crisis, and increasing numbers of women who typically benefit from the services in question, for instance childcare, are finding themselves in a position where they must assume these tasks themselves. Tarabella has acknowledged that the crisis, while having a damaging impact on both women and men, offers an important potential for the EU and national governments to rethink and restructure their approach to policy making.

This report is highly significant for several reasons. It addresses the challenges and the policy responses for removing barriers to women’s and men’s full participation in the labour market. It also addresses the importance of correcting the gender imbalance in decision-making. Amongst other things, it calls on the European Commission to establish a European Day for combating violence against women and children; it calls for a European charter of women’s rights to be established as soon as possible; it asks the Commission and Member States to run awareness-raising campaigns in schools and workplaces to combat persistent sexist stereotyping; and it highlights that women must have control over their sexual and reproductive rights.

While I am pleased to say that the report was successfully adopted during the vote in plenary on 10 February, it is unfortunate that the Tory-led ECR group opted to vote against the report. Only eight members of the ECR group voted in favour of the report, with 24 voting against and 14 abstaining. By contrast, nearly 96% of the S&D group members voted for the report. There can be no doubt that full gender equality will be much more difficult to achieve with groups like the ECR stifling the hard work of those in the Parliament committed to its achievement.

Tax on Financial Transactions

Labour Party

Given the recent publicity about the “Robin Hood” tax, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was given an honourable mention at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week.  An amendment to a resolution on the Conference on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in December suggested a tax on financial transactions, the Tobin tax named after the economist James Tobin who first mooted the idea, to support international climate action.

Although the amendment was defeated due to lack of support from the centre-right and right wing groupings in the European Parliament, I was pleased that many, though sadly not a majority, of MEPs joined with those campaigning to make the Tobin tax a reality. 

We know that Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all been strong advocates of  what is becoming known as the “Robin Hood” tax.  You couldn’t find a much better line up than that.  Gordon Brown, in fact, started to lobby for support for the Tobin tax in the City of London in the autumn of last year and I understand the International Monetary Fund is looking at such a plan, despite opposition from the United States.

It is, of course, the international nature of the Tobin tax which it such an ideal tool for raising money for matters which require action in more than one country.  The recently launched campaign in Britain by comedy writer Richard Curtis and popular actor Bill Nighy for such a a “Robin Hood” tax to be levied on banks is rare indeed in that it is popular for its own sake and targeted at an unpopular group – the banks.  Richard Curtis’s proposal to impose a 0.5% tax on international bankers’ transactions could raise up to £250 billion per year, a huge sum half of which would be retained by the country where the deal took place and the other half split between tackling climate change and reducing global poverty.  The plan targets institutions not ordinary people and is set at a level which should not hurt the banks.

You may have thought that even bankers would be hard pushed to oppose a tax which could do so much good at little cost to themselves.  Sadly, this does not appear to be the case as Goldman Sachs apparently orchestrated moves to vote against the “Robin Hood” tax on the campaign’s website.  Fortunately the Goldman Sachs ruse, which showed both the utmost arrogance and disregard for the plight of so many people on our planet, was rumbled.  However, the fact that they tried it on in such a way shows that bankers still have a long way to go before they think the same way as the majority.  

Back in the European Parliament, you will, of course, not be surprised to know that the Tories voted against the Tobin tax amendment.  Although the resolution in question was not legislative and hence only a recommendation to EU member states, European Parliament support for a Tobin tax to fund climate change work would have sent a strong signal.  It would also have put us on the same side as Oxfam, Save the Children, Action Aid, many trade unions, most mainstream churches and celebrities such as Bono who are known for the humanitarian work.  It’s a real tragedy that the right wing in Europe prefers to peddle its reactionary ideology rather than supporting moves to combat climate change and reducing world poverty.

Post Lisbon Blues

Labour Party

Reading the Guardian today you may be forgiven for thinking we are all suffering from a massive dose of gloom at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week.  To say nothing could be further from the truth would be an exaggeration; it’s more like business as usual with a bit extra doom thrown in for good measure.

Things are quite obviously not going to well on the big issues.  The economy across Europe is  in the doldrums with the current crisis in Greece making everyone very jittery.

To add insult to injury, the much vaunted Copenhagen summit on climate change held in December was little short of a farce.  Badly organised and lacking any sort of focus, it failed to produce any binding agreement.  Since the environment in general and climate issues in particular do not respect national borders and therefore require international action, this whole policy area is almost universally seen as Europe’s strongest card.  To come so unstuck at Copenhagen was therefore extremely bad news.

What is more, Europe’s internal, what EU jargon call “inter-institutional”, organisation is in a state of flux following the Lisbon Treaty.  There are now no less than four presidents:  Jose-Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, current holder of the six month rotating presidency.

You may recall that one of my reasons for supporting Tony Blair for as President of the European Council was to have one strong leader who would be above all the inter-institutional rivalry and cut down on the chaos.  Alas this wasn’t to be, to Europe’s immediate and, I believe, long term detriment.

President Obama recently cancelled his attendance at an EU summit due to be held in Madrid in May, allegedly because he doesn’t know who is in charge in the EU.  It looks suspiciously as if Obama is  following in the apocryphal footsteps of Henry Kissinger who apparently felt the same way.  Since this snub follows hard on the heels of the United States President’s failure to take much account of the EU at Copenhagen, Europe has much to think about.

The underlying and very real danger is that the world revolves once again around two super powers – this time the Unites States and China.  Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall we may be back to the same old alignment, capitalist and communist, west and east with the same potential for an aggressive arms build up.

The EU was perhaps never going to be strong enough to be the force countering these two massive countries with their huge landmass, natural resources and, perhaps more important, their overwhelming sense of national identity.  Yet we in Europe are in real danger of missing out on any meaningful influence.  While the EU remains riven with internal jealousies, unable to move forward, the chance of acting as a player on the world stage and being the counterweight to the USA and China lessens by the day.  Strength lies in unity not fragmentation.

Women in the Economic Crisis

Labour Party

Osnat LubraniThere is no denying that the current economic crisis has had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of individuals, families and businesses, both in Europe and beyond. Media reports flood in daily with stories of companies going bankrupt, of rising unemployment, and of families’ lives being ruined. Yet the effects of the crisis go deeper still. Indeed a reality that is frequently overlooked in media reports, but which I believe must be highlighted, is the gendered nature of the crisis. This downturn is having a disproportionately negative impact upon the lives of women, and in turn it is undermining the achievement of gender equality in Europe.

While at present there is little official data on this subject, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has been working hard to ensure that the real impact of the crisis on women is adequately recognised and understood. I recently read a summary of UNIEFM’s findings written by Osnat Lubrani, who is Director of UNIFEM’s Liaison Office in Brussels. Lubrani has been working for the organisation since 1997, and has a strong background in women’s rights. She was previously UNIFEM’s Regional Programme Director for Central and Eastern Europe, and she also played a key role in establishing the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, which is managed by UNIFEM. In her assessment she talked frankly about what the crisis really means for women and how their lives will be altered by it.  Some of the facts and figures she put forward are deeply concerning.

The sharp focus on redundancies and bankruptcies in industries dominated by men, such as construction, has led to the mistaken assumption that men have been hardest hit. Yet, as Lubrani rightly pointed out, women are the largest force for economic growth in the world today. They contribute to household incomes more significantly than ever before. While this is undoubtedly something to be praised, it also means that women are being more severely affected now than they were in previous recessions. Falling sales have hit textile industries hard. In Bulgaria alone 44,000 people have lost their jobs. 96 percent of these are women, primarily from the garment industry. Women are grossly overrepresented in part-time and insecure work. Yet part-time jobs are frequently left out of employment statistics. UNIFEM predicts that up to 22 million women worldwide may lose their jobs before the crisis ends.

Reductions in public expenditure are also having a notably adverse effect on women, since they are typically the main recipients of state services that are gendered, such as childcare, reproductive health and education. Girls are more likely than boys to be pulled out of school. Some may never return. Girls’ health is an area of particular concern, with predictions by the World Health Organisation that there will be between 200,000 and 400,000 additional deaths each year as a result of the crisis. In times of hardship women often choose to forgo private healthcare in favour of public, with the result that many are failing to receive the care and treatment that they so desperately need.unifem

I strongly agree with Osnat Lubrani’s observation that global responses to the crisis cannot simply mean jobs for men and welfare for women. The current downturn provides a window of opportunity for us to rethink old economic assumptions, such as the outmoded notion of men as the ‘family breadwinners’. If we do not act now, then we risk undoing all the hardwork that has led to women’s increased participation in the labour-market. Yet women should not be viewed simply as victims in the crisis. They must also be at the forefront of efforts to resolve it. Only with the help of women themselves will we be in a strong position to overcome this economic crisis.