Economic Crisis: Women Will Suffer Most – a comment from Australia

As the economic crisis continues to worsen, with capitalism unable to stop the spiral towards a global depression that will plunge millions into poverty, women will experience the negative consequences more rapidly and with more severity. While the ruling class — owners of banks, corporations and also governments — search for ways to make workers pay rather than pay with their own profits, women are among the oppressed groups who make the easiest, and therefore primary, target for cutbacks.

In Australia, the cutbacks at the expense of women are only just beginning to come to light. It is now likely that the May federal budget will lack the maternity leave scheme that has been demanded by women and community groups for years. Access to paid maternity leave would mean greater financial independence for women, but is a right that is currently denied to more than half of Australia’s women workers.

An OECD study in 2000 showed that many women who take time off work to raise children remain financially disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Holding the economic crisis up as a shield, Rudd has swiftly backed away from his statement late last year that the government would implement a universal paid parental leave scheme.

The Australian Trades and Labour Council has also retreated on the issue, hiding behind the economic crisis and suggesting a “compromise” position of phasing in a scheme over a number of years to avoid “sending the budget into deeper deficit”, according to the March 3 Australian.

Ideally, fully funded child care would be an alternative. However, the economic crisis is increasingly being used in government back-pedalling and child care suffered one of the first blows of the crisis. Privately owned super-monopoly, ABC Learning Centres, went into voluntary receivership in November last year, displacing thousands of children. The option now, women will be told, is to take responsibility for child care within the home, at the expense of their working lives.

Unemployment and increasing conditions of poverty will also come down hard on women. Globally, the International Labour Organisation has projected an unemployment rate between 6.3% and 7.1%. Yet the global unemployment rate for women is expected to reach 7.4% (compared to 7% for men) or 22 million women worldwide.

In Australia, ABN chief economist Amro Kieran Davies expects unemployment to climb to 8% by the end of the year. For women — who comprise the majority of low-wage, casual earners with less social protection — the deteriorating economy will mean the disproportionate effect of unemployment soon becomes a reality.

These trends are running parallel with both covert and explicit attacks on women’s rights in the workplace. Howard’s Work Choices and now Rudd’s Fair Work Act — “Work Choices-lite” — mean that women have even less ability to organise for their rights as workers. The pay gap between men and women — where, over a lifetime, women will earn 77 cents of the male dollar — will inevitably increase, as wages and conditions are now harder to fight for. All of these conditions, as they grow worse, will compound into a situation that progressive women and feminists have been fighting against for decades: financial dependency and women becoming trapped in their circumstances. “Women’s lower employment rates, weaker control over property and resources, concentration in informal and vulnerable forms of employment with lower earnings, and less social protection, all place women in a weaker position than men to weather crises”, ILO Bureau for Gender Equality director Jane Hodges said in March.

The reality, she said, is that “women may cope by engaging in working longer hours or by taking multiple low-income jobs but still having to maintain unpaid care commitments”. This is just what happened throughout the Great Depression.

During the Great Depression, women’s workload actually increased. The continuing mantra of “making ends meet” and also “keeping up the family morale” as hard times hit became a burden that rested mostly on women. When the depression plunged one-third of Australian men into unemployment, women were called upon to work harder — as homemakers, guardians and protectors of the family.

The result was a profound strengthening in the ideology of the family and suppression of any chance for women to take advantage of the economic turmoil and see the crisis of the system as a chance to make more permanent change. Now, the same thing is happening. Government leaders and media have already begun to churn through the values and cultural leverage that pressures women into the home. The same thing can be seen universally across the sections of Australia fearing the effects of the crisis: rather than radicalising and seeking to seriously challenge the system, people are being told to put their heads down and “work through the crisis”, putting the burden largely on women to implement this strategy.

Because the system is sexist, when the system begins to fail it is women who will suffer the most. When capitalism needs to cut back, it first hacks away at the victories and gains of mass progressive movements — the attacks on workers is a key example. The wins of second-wave feminism are under attack and will be the first to go. If there is no movement against this, it will continue, driving women further backwards than we can afford.

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