Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/164/7856
THE NEW Labour government is reviewing its family policy. It is trying to don a 'family-friendly' mantle, hoping to win back women's support for Labour which has evaporated in recent months.
As our feature below outlines Labour's current approach is dictated by the needs of the Treasury not those of families.
Keeping it out of the family
Is a woman's work ever done?
MOST WOMEN are constantly squeezed by the double burden of pressures in the workplace and in the home.
Wealth created in our society, far from easing women's life is concentrated in the hands of a few. Rich women can buy the services of others to carry out household chores like laundry and cleaning.
The number of women in paid employment is at an all-time high, but despite 30 years' equal pay legislation, women's wages are still 20% lower than men's. One problem is the type of work women do. Jobs like retailing, hairdressing and call centres are low paid with fewer opportunities for advancement.
A serious campaign should be launched in schools to encourage young women into engineering and new technologies. Millions of pounds should be invested into training women with proper allowances and benefits.
Whilst women bear the brunt of unpaid labour at home; in the workplace they have been exploited as well. The national minimum wage, is not a living wage. Only a minimum wage of at least £7 an hour would address the real needs of many women workers.
British workers work on average the longest hours in Europe. A shorter working week, strictly regulated, with no loss of pay, would not just help women but would make a real difference for everyone. A 35-hour week should just be a start with the aim of reducing hours even more.
Many women after childbirth take part-time jobs or jobs which can be fitted into weekends or evenings to juggle childcare. Many of these jobs entail flexible working and short-term contracts.
Any legislation to protect part-time workers must include full rights to holiday and sick pay as well proper pension rights and training opportunities. Women could remain in the same job but work temporarily reduced hours at the same level so their skills, qualifications and talents are not wasted.
The same facility should be available to men.
After a day at work, women face hours of unpaid work in the home. Statistics show that women still bear the brunt of organising and doing household chores like cooking and cleaning. If only some of the wealth that women created in the first place was invested into providing services to help lift the burden then life could be so much better.
A recent report into young people's health suggests that fast foods and junk foods are not healthy. Yet companies like McDonald's make billions out of us. More and more families use takeaway food services because of increased pressures at home.
Local authorities should have resources to provide good quality subsidised restaurants on local estates to enable families to have access to healthy food. These should be well-equipped with healthy food at minimal cost and should enable families to mix in a social atmosphere.
Good quality, minimal cost or free services should be available for laundry and cleaning chores. If wealthy women can have these services, why not us all? This would also save energy. For all of these services the quality has to be high and the cost low - society should subsidise services like these.
Services like cleaning, laundry and catering in today's society are predominantly run by women workers who are low paid and highly exploited. These essential workers should be well paid and well protected. All of these demands would help women and men.
Women would be freed from the drudgery and isolating activities of housework. They could begin to play a much fuller role in society and enjoy leisure time with their family or take up hobbies or further education.
Socialists must aim high and demand a socialist society where the exploitation of all workers is ended and where the double exploitation of women is no longer tolerated.
Giving parents a break
A LONDON Business School advanced management course concluded that "Britain is the worst place to be a mother" Women from Sweden, Denmark and Norway were astonished at how few legal rights working women have in Britain to time off and pay.
In all three countries women are entitled to a year's paid leave. In Sweden fathers get ten days paid paternity leave immediately following birth and a further four weeks during the first year. They can also take some of their partner's entitlement so that the year's leave can be shared.
The average woman in Britain has just eight weeks' maternity leave on full pay, the European average is 32. I am about to go on maternity leave and am aware that for most women in paid work having a baby means a huge income drop. I am entitled to 40 weeks off, but as over half of that time would be unpaid I can't afford to.
The Department of Trade and Industry are reviewing existing maternity and parental leave . Given New Labour's attachment to big business and their tradition of looking to the US for their social policies this is a bit chilling. American women have no statutory maternity rights or pay.
Some MPs are attempting to be "family friendly" and aiming to "meet the needs of business" at the same time. Harriet Harman, who cut lone parent benefit as Social Security Minister, has put forward a 15-point plan including extending maternity leave to one year, the right to return to a job part time, and grants to small employers to help them implement changes.
Socialist Party members would support these proposals and those advanced by trade unions and pressure groups to extend existing provision. But, unless maternity paternity and parental leave are on full pay most families will not be able to afford to use it fully. Genuine freedom of choice would only exist for the well off. Maternity/Paternity rights should be part of a range of family friendly policies and support for new parents which address their needs fully, rather than what the Treasury or company shareholders will permit.
What are your current rights?
- 18 weeks' Statutory Maternity Pay if you earn £62-plus a week. Six weeks of this at 90% of wages then down to about £60 per week or
- 18 weeks' Maternity Allowance of about £50 a week if you earn under £62 per week or if you are not employed 15 weeks before your baby is due.
- Fathers - no legal entitlement to paid paternity leave.
- 14 weeks maternity leave for all employed women.
- If with same employer for two years, 40 weeks total, but only 18 weeks is paid leave.
- The right to return to your job or a similar one.
- Fathers - three months' unpaid parental leave for child born after legislation introduced.
Kids - who'd have them?
A RECENT survey found that 75% of parents currently feel good childcare is impossible to find. Childcare costs for example £20 per day per child. If you work full-time, five days a week this is £400 from your monthly wage packet.
Gordon Brown says he wants children who "live in poverty to receive good childcare at nursery age as it is recognised that a good education can raise children's chances of later exam success."
But, according to the Day Care Trust, for parents in poor communities access to quality childcare is as much a "pipedream" as private education. There are currently 600,000 children under-three living in poverty but only 42,740 free or subsidised places.
Government Sure Start schemes will not be enough to fill the 'childcare gap'.
A recent Socialist Women's meeting discussed family friendly childcare. What do modern women need from childcare?
As an expectant mum I face the minefield that is current childcare. My first assumption that I could register the baby due in November for childcare next July at our 'workplace nursery' was wrong; there is a shortage of places for babies and I have to make alternative arrangements. Assumption two - that my maternity pay is for 18 weeks; also wrong: currently it is only for six weeks, to get the extra 12 weeks you have to guarantee to go back to the workplace on the same hours you left!
Assumption three - that the childcare would meet parents' needs by providing at least 8am-5.30pm cover: Wrong! You have to book the child in for mornings/afternoons, this way they can charge for two sessions instead of one.
I work for Coventry University, which has won has an award called 'Investors In People'? I'm not sure which people they invest in but it's definitely not pregnant employees.
Child-friendly policies should include access to free childcare for all mothers, whether in work or at home. Nurseries, playgroups and crèches should be of the highest standard with enough qualified workers on decent wages. They should be accessible for parents who work part-time, full-time, weekend workers, and those on shifts.
The emphasis must be on quality childcare not profit margins. Childcare provision should be free - children are the responsibility of the whole of society.
The Socialist Demands:
- A network of good quality, flexible, publicly funded childcare, including pre-school, after-school and holiday schemes, accessible to all parents who want them.
- Extended maternity provision on full pay, with all benefits available from day one in work.
- Parental leave for childcare responsibilities to be paid and available to parents of all children up to the age of 16.
- Maternity and child benefits to reflect real costs.
- Stop privatisation. For a massive increase in spending on housing, education, health and other public services.
In The Socialist 30 June 2000: