Aislinn Shanahan Daly looks at the limitations of Fine Gael’s Gender Pay Gap Bill, and the cynical way the party has sought to co-opt the struggle for gender equality.
Fine Gael would have us believe that they are the new face of a changing and liberalising Ireland. After all, wasn’t it they who brought us Repeal and Equal Marriage? Shouldn’t we all be grateful for their services to equality, and the valiant struggle of Varadkar & Co to transform this island? I think not.
Coming from the historic party of Irish conservatism, this recent conversion is hard to stomach. But it is also utterly vacuous. Many activists will remember the sickening feeling when Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris paraded around during the Repeal referendum, as if they were the harbingers of women’s equality.
This despite having not lifted a finger to defend abortion rights for many years, still worse their obstructionist role in blocking abortion legislation from Left TDs on several occasion.
Charlatans that they are, however, they quickly changed their tune when it became politically expedient. With the tide of Repeal about to wash over them, they cleverly reoriented at the last minute and attempted to co-opt a decades’ long struggle by ordinary people.
We cannot allow a party that has presided over an abysmal series of scandals since the Repeal referendum passed—from the cervical smear scandal which caused the preventable deaths of women, to an ever-worsening housing crisis that has seen women dying on the street from homelessness—to cop-opt the movement for women’s rights and equality, when they have no serious intention of pursuing it.
If we are really to win equality in this country, then we must face up to the fact that Fine Gael’s record on gender equality is nothing to commend. As they attempt to rehabilitate their image to attract a younger, progressive audience, it is important to poke some holes in the façade.
Gender Pay Gap Bill
Fine Gael, in response, would no doubt claim that they are indeed committed to gender equality. They may point to their Gender Pay Gap Bill, aimed at tackling the gender pay gap in Irish society. This is, of course, something that urgently needs addressed. But in reality, the limited provisions in this bill are not nearly enough to cover up Fine Gael’s legacy of brutalising women through austerity, poverty and healthcare abuses.
The bill would require employers with a certain staffing threshold to publish the situation regarding the gender pay gap in their firms and the measures they are taking to rectify any existing problems. The Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said that this “will incentivise employers to take measures to address the issue insofar as they can”, including some facility for threatening legal repercussions to employers who do not reach the criteria of expected reportage of gender pay disparity or do not provide evidence of their steps to eliminate it.
On paper, this may seem reasonable enough. But in practice these measures are paper thin. The bill does not necessarily require the employer to do anything substantial as long as they can explain away the reason men got more bonuses than women during a certain year, for example. Partly this is because the whole policy is obsessed with the neo-liberal mantra of incentivisation—the softly-softly approach to businesses much loved by Fine Gael and the right wing establishment—rather than substantial economic regulation of bosses.
There is another problem. Rather than addressing the systemic and fundamental reasons for gender inequality, the bill greatly narrows the scope of consideration around pay disparities between genders. The gender pay gap is not only about discrepancies in salaries between male and female CEOs. It also about unpaid labour performed by women, maternity allowances, costs of childcare etc. This bill does not consider any of these issues.
Irish women perform almost three times more unpaid labour than men, with men spending significantly more time in paid labour, and women overall working 20 minutes more in total labour time on average per day (OECD Gender Data Portal). Without affordable childcare and a staggeringly low maternity benefit, the labour time that goes into having children is overwhelmingly performed by women, and they are economically punished for it. To try and tackle the gender pay gap without acknowledging the burden of unpaid labour is disingenuous to say the least.
Rich and Poor
It’s no surprise that most conversations about the gender pay gap in mainstream media or politics are almost entirely focused on higher income corporate and leadership jobs. These jobs are reserved for a minuscule section of the population. A similar demographic has historically attempted to co-opt struggles for gender equality and liberation; the ruling class. They have attempted to remove any hint of discussion around the variables of class from the popular idea of feminism. We are encouraged to ‘liberate’ ourselves through consumption, and to applaud when women take on roles in prestigious male-dominated arenas even if it has literally no material benefit to us.
The gender pay gap is a real thing, and it exists across class society. But acknowledging it, and tackling it, also requires that we look at the pay gap between rich and poor. This is not, of course, what Fine Gael has in mind. Such a thing would undermine the political system’s whole ethos; to withhold resources from the exploited majority of the world’s population in order to support the exponential greed of the ruling class. If pay equality across all intersections of class, gender and race among other things were to be enacted we would live in a completely different political system.
It would be ideal if a set of policies could be voted in to rectify this entrenched world inequality, but governments struggle to even rectify the gender pay gap within their own class through band-aid policies such as Fine Gael’s Gender Pay Gap Bill.
There are a few demands that would be useful for women who don’t happen to be CEOs and are suffering workplace inequality. One is we should be calling for all women workers to join a union, to struggle for equal treatment in the workplace from below. The nurse’s strike earlier this year was a fantastic example of a denigrated, female-dominated sector organising and demanding better labour conditions.
Undocumented labourers are suffering mistreatment at the hands of employers and landlords who exploit their precarious positions. Direct Provision must be abolished and those who come here to seek asylum should be granted full rights as human beings and as workers. As well as that, LGBTQ people, especially transgender people, deserve safe working conditions as well as an end to discrimination in the workplace.
Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine what gender equality could mean under capitalism. Instead of imagining utopian situations, we should look to the amazing struggles across the world led by women today, whether it’s abortion rights or indigenous peoples’ enviromentalism. Many of those struggles are challenging the system and paving the way for a new kind of society. It certainly isn’t anything that is fabricated in a Fine Gael cabinet meeting.