Key note speech at 7th Barbara Prammer Symposium: Gender Sensitive COVI-19 Responses

Esther Lynch, Deputy General secretary ETUC
Building Blocks for Equality between Men and Women at Work,  European Policy Perspectives  

Colleagues, sisters and friends, I am honoured to be invited to be part of the annual Barbara Prammer symposium.

Mrs Prammer, had a vision of feminism that was global in its scale and in its ambition and universal in its solidarity, dedicated to confronting some of the most pervasive structures of oppression.

Many of the equality gains built up over decades could be lost in a year of Covid and the creeping backlash against women rights that had started before Covid is given an extra dimension.

Lockdown conditions have thrown into stark relief entrenched gender inequalities in care work. Extended school closures, overstretched health systems and housework and care responsibilities for the young and old have exponentially increased women’s workdays. 

Notwithstanding the emergence of the Instagram dads showing off their new found skill of baking bread, the care burden has fallen onto women. Quick fact: Eurofound did some research into the experience of working parents with children aged under 12 during Covid - on average, women spent  62 hours per week caring for children (compared to 36 hours for men) and 23 hours per week doing  housework (15 hours for men).

The care burden of Covid poses a real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, as if proof were needed, how the paradigm in which our economies has operated for the past four decades has driven a crisis of insecurity, at work and in society that hits women hardest.

Cut backs in public services left counties unable to cope and cut back in rights let workers stranded with no sick pay entitlements the same workers often with a double whammy as cuts in pay left over a third of workers going into the crisis with no savings and the other third with savings to keep them and their families afloat for three months. Increases in precarious employment, contract working, and an ongoing casualisation of labour, with new and emerging trends in work practices, including health damaging increased working time, are often deemed ‘innovations’, innovations insofar as they provide new means to maximise profits for employers, but in their practical delivery reveal the ongoing erosion of employees’ hard-won labour rights.

It is easy to get overwhelmed.  I certainly do at times. But when I think about this time,  I think that this is a time that will give birth to change. How hugely regrettable it would be, what a lost opportunity, if, we were to revert to the insecurity and inequality of where we were before the Covid crisis.

To do so would be to let down all of the frontline and essential workers - carers, cleaners and service workers – the majority of whom are women.

The task now at hand – to create a Europe that is more equal, one in which all women and their work is valued, and all jobs are decent, fairly paid, fulfilling and secure, together with adequate social protection and pension – is far from an easy undertaking. But it is an urgent one. Women workers cannot be called essential and at the same time be paid rock bottom wages with  insecure conditions and expect us to be quiet and accept this as our lot.

Women will not settle with being told get to the back of the queue. No not on our watch.

We need immediate action to ensure that the EU and its Member States Recovery Plans are gender sensitive. Meaning that they recognise that the needs of women during and coming out of the Covid crisis are different.

I would like to highlight three building blocks for a more gender equal world of work after the crisis. There is  a great deal more that needs to be done but these three are a good place to start.

1: Bring forward Gender Pay Transparency Legislation as a priority

Two brief statistics. At over 20%  Austria has one of the most prounounced gender pay gaps in Europe much higher than the EU average. This pay inequality feeds into Austria's 4th highest gender pension gap in the EU. If things continue as they are, we will never reach equality in pay between men and women. This  is why the ETUC has prioritised calling on the EU Commission to urgently come forward with the Gender Pay Transparency Directive that will:

  1. Empower trade unions to negotiate with employers to tackle the pay gap;
  2. Ban pay secrecy clauses in contracts so that workers can discuss pay;
  3. Require release of information on job evaluation for the purpose of establishing equal pay for work of equal value; using an equal value comparator  where the value of work is assessed and compared by reference to objective criteria, including but not limited to:
    • skill, including education, training, experience, knowledge, interpersonal skills, problem solving, organisational skills;
    • effort, including physical, mental and psycho-social effort;
    • responsibility, including accountability, responsibility for people, goods and equipment, information or financial resources;
    • working conditions, including the nature of the tasks involved, organisational environment, physical, psychological or emotional environment.
  4. Make all employers produce pay information audits and annual action plans on pay equality;
  5. Tackle gender stereotypes from the start.

Improve Rules on Telework

Fundamental requirements for telework to be sucessful means trust built on agreement with the workforce through collective agreements - that ensures

1:Choice - workers must have greater choice -  to telework and a clear right to return to workplace after COVID - workers should know how their requests to Telework are considered how decisions are made.  Keeping in mind that the majority of workers want a blend of both.

2:Guarantee Equal Pay and Treatment for Teleworkers – we need to prevent unacceptable attempts by unscrouplous employers to seek to pay less or to pass over teleworkers for promotion for example.

3:Telework Support Payments must be paid to workers to ensure that the worker does not bear costs - equipment and running costs, all of the teleworking costs should be paid by employer.

4:End to privacy invasive surveillance - workers need to know, plus any surveillance must not be excessive and workers must always be able to switch it off.

5:Measures to guarantee that the workers Right to Disconnect is genuine

6:Health and Safety including protection from on-line harassment, egonomics, organisation  of work, targets and demands and software plus domestic violence must be included in the rsk assesment for telework.

Combat the backlash against womens rights

EU leaders must prioritise ratification of the Istanbul Convention, treaty preventing violence against women. Austria was one of the first to do so. EU accession, which began in October 2015  is now stuck in the European Council. EU accession would ensure stronger protections and rights under EU law for women and girls in every member state.

It would also send the right message to the five member states which are still yet to put the treaty in national law, as well as those considering rolling back their commitment to preventing violence against women. Or tolerating discriminations against women who are LBTIQ or because that are migrant women  or because of they are working class women or because of the way they look, their age.

Its not that all women are victims. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Its that we  are all responsible for what we know but choose to ignore. I know that, as I speak, the treatment of some women is profoundly unfair, discriminatory, unjust, threatened with forms of sexual harassment, violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation, rape and murder. This calls for an activist feminism that will both name and expose the abuses and work for robust solutions – a feminism like that demonstrated by Barbara Prammer.