In February the Women’s Fightback paper looked at women and work – Rosalind Robson explains why.
In the past 40 years there has been a big rise in the percentage of women in waged work — in April to June 2013, this was around 67% of working-age women, up from 53% in 1971. Less well-known is the fall in the percentage of working-age men in waged work — down to 76% in 2013, from 92% in 1971. To some extent women have displaced men in the labour market.
A big underlying change is the long-term restructuring of UK capitalism, away from manufacturing and towards service industries. This has gone hand-in-hand with an overall decline in wages. On average women earn less than men (though the gap has reduced slightly). But inflation has outstripped the rise in average pay for both men and women in the past 12 years.
This decline in wages could have been, but was not, impeded by organised union resistance. An economic imperative for some women to work (one wage could not sustain a family), combined with women being “matched” to employment in lower-paid, more “flexible” (part-time) service industry jobs. For some women “flexible” work was a necessity: it meant women were just about able to combine waged work and the unpaid child and other caring work they were still expected to do at home. We still have a tremendous struggle to find affordable, appropriate childcare; many of us rely on informal childcare ( e.g. our aging parents) to plug the gaps. For other women flexible work was the only work they could get.
Women’s waged work is now a permanent component of European capitalist exploitation (and becoming similar but not identical elsewhere in the world). “Women’s work” is largely segregated from “men’s”, it is largely categorised as semi-skilled (this is a highly subjective category: why is for example, are the responsible and complex tasks of nursery work seen as semi-skilled?); it is largely lower paid and often involves fewer more “flexible hours” which reinforce low pay. It was and is all very convenient to capitalism. And because the unions have not fought back, the changes have become part-and-parcel of capitalists breaking up security of employment for everyone, extending low pay and “flexible” work to many more workers, especially young people and especially migrant workers.
The importance of devoting time to children, particularly in their early years has never been so highly valued by parents. Yet the participation of mothers in work is both an economic necessity and seen as or felt to be compulsory; for the poorest single unemployed mothers who risk losing their benefits if they don’t find work it is matter of government diktat.
Spending time doing the necessary labour of bringing up children has become almost a frivolous luxury. On the other hand for women “going out to work” (getting away from the isolation of the world of home and children) has been always (and at times in history dramatically) a step towards a wider social world, and the chance to participate in class struggles. But then again if your work is a million miles away from a “career”, is a soul-destroying struggle with no class or sisterly solidarity and no union to fight for change, then it is not “liberation”!
Life for working-class women has never been so fraught with contradictions — weighed down by the frustration of marginal economic gain and the tyranny of impossible logistical and sometimes difficult emotional choices: Is it worth earning that extra £10 or £20 a week? Can I still pick up the children if I take up that four hour a day job? If my child is in nursery for 10 hours a day what kind of mother am I?
In a series of articles in the paper and now on the blog Women’s Fightback looks at some of these realities of European capitalism as a contribution to a discussion about changing our unions, developing a politics that is adequate for the battles we have to fight, as women, with men, in or out of waged work.