Speakers Linda, Olivia, Liz (chair) and Sarah sat at the front of the meeting
Speakers Linda, Olivia, Liz (chair) and Sarah sat at the front of the meeting

Olivias speaks at the International Womens Day event

Olivia joined Linda McAvan and Sarah Woolley to discuss issues effecting women and the labour movement. The well attended event led to a lively discussion about the most contemporary issues facing women.

Read Olivia’s speech below:

“International Women’s Day has by now become an institution – they even honour it with an open debate in parliament. People from across the House comes in to the chamber to emphasise the importance of women’s equality, how far we’ve come, and the steady progress we’re making in how many women are in positions of power and influence.

And all this creates its own annual – predictable – backlash. “What about international men’s day?” is a question I suspect we’ve all been asked, probably aggressively, perhaps by an anonymous online social media account.

Despite how institutionalised it’s become, and how routine the debates are, it’s important that we remember the radical origins of the day – we don’t talk about them enough.

We don’t talk about the conference of socialist women who first started the day in 1909.

We don’t talk about the fact that these women weren’t just fighting for suffrage, but also for equal pay and economic rights.

We especially don’t talk about the fact it was on International Women’s Day in 1917 that Russian women took industrial action to demand the vote, equal pay, and that their country withdraw from the first World War. Not only did they win the demand for suffrage, but their strike would lead to the abdication of the Tsar, and the rest – as they say – is history.

No one ever tells us that these women took their action in defiance of the men who led their movement.

Sarah Woolley is talking later about women and Trade Unions and I don’t want to tread on her toes, but it’s an interesting fact that throughout history, it’s often been women who were the most militant and the most prepared to take radical action.

From the ‘matchgirls’ of the 1888 strike at the Bryant and May match-making factory, to the 1968 seamstresses’ strike at the Dagenham Ford factory, women have been on the frontline – demanding not only equal but better pay and conditions for everyone. That’s no surprise; where there’s a general injustice, women are usually at the sharper end of it.

That’s why I’m glad that we’re talking about women and the economy today – because we’re in a situation in Britain and across the globe where women often do have formal equality under the law, but our society is anything but equal.

According to Oxfam, the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 million people. For women, the inequality is even starker; the 22 richest men have more money than all the women on the continent of Africa.

And we all know about the gender pay gap. Across the globe the International Labour organisation puts it at roughly 20%, and in Britain it’s 17%. The 14th November is the point in the year that women begin working for free, compared to our male counterparts.

The type of work we do is different, too. In Britain, women work primarily in areas like health, social care, and education. The Women’s Budgeting Group have also presented figures that show women are disproportionately represented in the public sector.

And that’s if we’re even working. The World Economic Forum report on the Global Gender Gap demonstrates that women are becoming more excluded from the labour market, rather than more integrated. In Britain, women’s employment lags behind men’s by 8%.

We might not be employed at the same rate as men, but one thing is sure – we do more unpaid labour, such as caring for children or chronically ill or disabled family members. Globally, 41 million men provide unpaid care on a full-time basis compared to 606 million women. Oxfam estimate that the amount of work women do for free can be valued at £10.8 trillion – that’s three times the value of the world’s tech industry.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the unpaid labour of women is a condition for the super profits made by the 22 richest men in the world.

The figures are shocking because they reveal the stark inequalities at the heart of our economic system. But they’re also important because the structural position of women in the economy means that Tory austerity has fallen more heavily on our shoulders.

Privatisation and cuts to public services, education and health all disproportionately hit us because those are the sectors in which we work. And cuts to social care mean that women are forced to take on more of the burden of unpaid labour.

The consequences of a decade of austerity are writ large in the findings of the “Health equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 years on” report. It found that for the first time in a century, the life expectancy of the most deprived women in the UK has fallen.

To my mind, this statistic alone is one of the most damaging indictments of this government’s record.

The women at the beginning of International Women’s Day led the way on tackling the great crisis of their era – the human cost of war on the soldiers on the frontline, and their families at home. It’s right that as we approach this International Women’s Day, we also address the great crisis of our time: the climate catastrophe.

For all the reasons I’ve already given, climate chaos disproportionately impacts upon women, especially the poorest women in the world. In drought-ridden countries, the household division of labour means women are forced to walk longer for food, water and fuel. As new climate extremes drive workers from their jobs and create waves of climate refugees, it’s the unpaid labour of women that creates the social infrastructure to absorb the shock of the crisis.

While our party’s Green New Deal addresses the twin economic and environmental disasters, it’s also a feminist demand. To reach carbon neutrality by the 2030s, we’ll need to invest in renewable energy, green infrastructure and well-paid, unionised jobs. That would mean ending the austerity and CO2 emissions that have ruined women’s lives and livelihoods.

So, as we approach this International Women’s Day, I hope we remember the radicalism of the women that came before us. Just as their historic struggle for equality under the law, in the workplace and the home involved facing the great crises of their time and fighting for the solutions, so does our contemporary fight for a more equal world and a planet free from climate catastrophe.”

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