There is a wide-held belief that the EU is a champion of women’s rights, aided perhaps by screeds of official documents on gender equality. Across the EU women still lag severely behind men in pay and how they are treated at work. Marnie Holborow—writer and socialist activist for women’s rights—explains why the specific policies and interests of EU capitalism allow the gender pay gap to continue. This article is a shortened version of an article in the current issue of Irish Marxist review.
While two women were hitting the headlines for securing the top two positions in the EU, the stark facts of the gender pay gap across the EU may have gone unnoticed.
Women still earn 16% less than men. Women work fewer hours and their life-long earnings on average across the 28 countries are a shocking 40% lower than men’s. The gender gap in pensions is 37%.
Gender equality was enshrined in the founding treaties of the European Union. It has been the subject of over 15 EU Directives, and in 2017 the EU adopted a special Action Plan to tackle pay inequality.
In fact, it is commonly held that the EU is a protector of women’s rights. One recent report The EU and Irish Women claims that EU ‘stronger, progressive equality legislation’ has ‘radically improved’ the situation for Irish working women.
This is simply not the case. The 1973 legislation passed as a result of EU Directives did remove the marriage bar for women in civil service jobs, but it extended what had already become the case for primary school teachers back in 1957. Also, the real surge in female employment came during the Celtic Tiger boom, some twenty years after EU membership. More women working in Ireland resulted in the type of industries favoured by Foreign Direct Investment from the USA, returning female emigrants who had always worked and other factors.
So how come across the EU, with all its rhetoric of gender equality, are women still stuck on lower pay?
Labour market policy
A policy priority for the EU has been to reduce ‘labour force inactivity’. Mass unemployment, the scourge of previous economic crises, needed to be avoided at all costs. Part of this was drawing more women onto the labour market. In 2002 the Lisbon Process set 60% as the target for women’s paid employment. Fifteen years later female employment across the EU had risen to 64%, only 10% behind the male rate. In Ireland, female employment soared—from historically very low levels to 60% today.
Female ‘labour activation’ has been driven by capital’s need to fill labour shortages in a rapidly changing economy. It has occurred in an increasingly deregulated labour market and resulted in more part-time, flexible contracts with lower pay—or what is officially called ‘atypical employment’.
The changes around women working in Germany, the powerhouse of the EU, are instructive. In the 1950’s, Germany had a gender pay gap of 45%. Today it has fallen to 21%, five points more than the European average. Unemployment has been reduced, and the reserve army of mainly female labour drawn into the workforce but, as Oliver Nachtwey highlights in his recent book, Germany’s Hidden Crisis, the total volume of work has not risen proportionately. Between 2001 and 2016 indefinite part time employment, mainly done by women, rose by 4 million while the number of full-time jobs fell by one million. In the largest economy of Europe, worse conditions for female workers has become part of the structure of its labour market.
Gender inequality at work has become a recognised fact. In March this year, Berlin’s Transport system, the BVG, recognised this by offering for one day a ‘Frauenticket’ (women’s ticket) which cost 21% less—the amount of the women’s pay gap.
One reason why Germany has only relatively recently moved to the dual-income model is that trade unions, in the past, had managed to keep wages in skilled and public sector jobs in line with the cost of living. But the Hartz labour reforms of the early 2000’s dismantled labour agreements and one breadwinner per household was no longer enough to meet needs. Greater numbers of women have been drawn into work partly in response to a phenomenon affecting workers across the late capitalist world—real wages falling.
In Ireland, too, women make up most part-time workers. It has one of the highest percentage of low-paying jobs among OECD countries. High mortgages and expensive rents have driven many women into work but the wages that most women earnt is not enough to meet their living costs, never mind raise their living standards. The sharp increase in the number of women working has coincided with the reality that this generation will be materially worse off than the one before.
Marx noted a similar trend in nineteenth century capitalism. As he put it in Wage, Labour and Capital ‘the more productive capital grows, the more does competition extend among the workers, [and] the more do their wages shrink together’. Women joining the workforce today do so in conditions of greater exploitation. Figures showing the decline of the wage share in most developed economies over the last thirty years bear this out.
Figures show that the gender pay gap is biggest—at 48%—for those who are parents of children younger than seven. Women up to the age of 25 are as likely to be in employment as men and more likely to be in education but the 25-34 age range—the peak of childbearing—women’s participation rates fall back.
The EU may laud ‘affordable childcare’ and a ‘sustainable work-life balance’ but its neoliberal framework has blocked improvements in these areas. A core plank of EU economic policy, as we know only too well, is to keep government spending down, cut sovereign debt to revive profitability, and cut the costs of taxation and welfare.
This has fed into EU policy on childcare. For example, the Barcelona Objectives on Childcare covers both ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ services—formal being both public and private which are ‘centre based’ and informal those which are provided by non-certified childminders or family members. The policy advocates ‘different national childcare traditions’ should be taken into account.
Behind this apparent inclusivity, lies neoliberal deregulation which rules out increased state provision of childcare. Ireland is at the sharp end of the marketisation of childcare. At an average of €861 a month, Irish childcare is the most expensive in Europe with the result that hundreds of willing, educated and skilled women workers cannot afford to go out to work. Parents, and in the main mothers, are left to find their own solution: paying an exorbitant amount for a creche or a childminder, calling on other family members to help out, or juggling their work hours to mind the children themselves.
Women as the main carers of children—and of the elderly or the sick—impacts negatively on their position in the labour market. Due to absences from work, or being unable to work long hours, women are bunched into part-time low paid jobs and often locked out of career progression.
The denial of childcare as a social right, reveals the role that households play for capitalism. Capitalism needs ever more workers, but it offloads the care of the next generation to parents who must either pay for childcare from their earnings or provide it in their own time. Capitalism gets a new labour force at very little cost to the state. It gets a cheaper female workforce which it can super-exploit as well.
There is a further knock-on discriminatory effect to widespread privatised childcare. Paid domestic work is often unregulated, care providers and au-pairs are not recognised as workers and occupy a twilight zone with no social citizenship rights. This restriction, may be favourable in terms of tax for better off mothers who have the means to solve their own work/care difficulties, but it offers nothing but vulnerability and insecurity to the many migrant workers who provide the service.
It is estimated that around 100,000 illegal workers from abroad work in the German Personal and Household Services sector and there are 2.3 million employees directly recruited by private individuals for domestic work across the EU. Many of these are women of colour, although the EU’s blindness to diversity means that there are no official reports on exact numbers nor targets to tackle racist discrimination. According the Migrants Rights Centre of Ireland more than 20,000 families in Ireland rely on au pairs to provide childcare and household duties and the average au pair is paid just €100—a lot less than the minimum wage—for a 40-hour week of childminding, cleaning and cooking.
Publicly funded childcare
From every aspect, the provision of free publicly funded widely available childcare is the vital social building block to combating the gender pay gap. Without it, women remain discriminated against and suffer higher levels of poverty. Already women across the EU have shown their disgust at sexism and sexual assault in the workplace. The #metoo campaign which has sprung up across workplaces in Ireland and Italy, and in Google internationally, has brought sexual assault out into the open and made the perpetrators accountable. We need workplace-based campaigns in Ireland to demand fully state funded childcare to stop the ongoing discrimination against parents and female workers, and to meet the basic social rights of those who need the service and those who provide it. The breaking of the state spending rules of the EU will be needed to deliver this. It has always been up to movements on the ground to secure real gains for women, as we know from winning abortion rights last year. For formal gender equality policies from the EU do little to disturb deeper, systemic gender discrimination.