Sadly, International Women’s Day 2011 in Ireland is not a cause for major celebration. Undoubtedly there has been significant progress over the last century and specifically over the last 40 years. But the objective of true equality has never been reached, and now that objective faces new and severe pressure.
We are all aware of the global crisis of capitalism which has engulfed whole continents over the last few years. We can see around us the devastation wreaked by that collapse in mass unemployment, ghost estates, rising emigration and the infamous EU/IMF deal. We know that the mantra from the right which says we are in all this together is a downright lie and a deliberate political deception. As ever there is a clear class divide. The rich still get richer and the workers carry the can. Bankers still get bonuses and we get swingeing cutbacks. But it must be said clearly that the burden of the recession falls disproportionally on women, and that the 2011 budget in particular was profoundly anti-woman.
Women make up by far the greatest percentage of low paid and part-time workers in the economy. Tourism, retail, services, and hospitality sector have always employed large numbers of women on a part time and often seasonal basis. They are all notorious industries for low pay, bad conditions and operating within the black economy. Traditionally also these industries have actively and viciously discouraged trade union membership amongst the workforce.
The one Euro reduction in the hourly minimum wage, representing a real cutback of 12% was, therefore, largely an attack on women. Not only was it an attack on women, it was an attack on the most vulnerable section of women in the workforce. As can be seen from the recent dispute in the Davenport Hotel many of the lowest paid women have come from other EU countries to work here. They may have language problems, no family to act as support; and a fear of joining the Trade Union Movement because of threats of victimisation. While we may celebrate at the success of the Davenport strikers we must ask how many other bosses have not been highlighted, have not been brought to the Labour Court and have succeeded in slashing already meagre wages.
One of the more despicable cuts in the December budget was the cut in the carers’ allowance. This revealed the real contempt which the Fianna Fáil / Green Party / PD rump had developed for the vulnerable in this society. This contempt is most evident when the cut in the carers’ allowance is contrasted with the cushy deal offered to already over-paid consultants and the big-wigs in the HSE hierarchy. We realise of course that the attack on carers was not gender neutral. The vast majority of carers are women, so the vast majority of the victims of that cynical cutback are women.
Right throughout Budget 2011 we can see the same anti-women bias. From cutbacks in community projects and the community development programme to changes in pension entitlement for public servants, that bias is evident. In Cameron’s England the very same pattern emerges. In Stormont, Sammy Wilson MLA, Minister for Finance in the Sinn Féin / DUP Executive, has just last weekend produced an equally regressive budget.
Tomorrow in the Republic we will have a new government, a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Labour with 66% of Dáil seats between them. We already know their programme for government. While it is carefully crafted for the catchy soundbite and the occasional sweetener, I see no solution there for our problems. The incoming government totally avoids tackling wealth and inequality; avoids tackling the robbery of our natural resources; avoids any radical decisions on either the banks or the bailout. So, as I said we may have a sweetener like the restoration of the minimum wage, but will we get the retention of the REA for the pub, hotel, and catering trade?
It is as important now as it was in 1910 when Clara Zetkin, secretary of the organisation International Socialist Women, organised the first International Women’s day conference that women are organised in all the progressive political, social, and trade union movements. Women must be to the forefront of the socialist movement. We must not allow this economic crisis and the brutality of the capitalist response to sap our energy. If we continue to organise and struggle we still have so much to gain. On the other hand if we relax and cease our vigilance we have so much to lose. We cannot cease now, we cannot surrender now. The struggle for equality and freedom continues.
8th March 2011.