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European Parliament addresses problems for women workers: lower pay; precarious contracts; carer and pension anomalies; and issues of childcare and domestic violence

On 26th May the European Parliament passed a comprehensive and progressive report on “Poverty – A Gender Perspective”. There has been recognition of the feminisations of poverty for decades, but there has been little progress on tackling the root causes for this. There is a whole range of factors at play and the report is valuable in taking a multi-dimensional approach.

I was the author of the chapter that dealt with employment issues. The single biggest issue for employment is that women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts. Across the EU the gender pay gap stands at 16.3%, with Ireland doing slightly better at an average of 13.9%.

We are calling for greater transparency in pay systems. The gender pay-gap is compounded by the disporportionate number of women who are on zerohour contracts and in precarious work. Dressed up in neo-liberal language as ‘flexible’ contracts, people on these contracts are left not knowing from one week to the next whether there will be enough money to pay the rent or to put food on the table.

Our report calls on all Member States to implement the Internation Labour Organisation recommendations on reducing precarious contracts. This would limit the amount of time a worker can be employed on such a contract before being offered a permanent one. The new Portuguese Government is looking at the possibility of a tax disincentive for employers who use precarious contracts excessively.

Things get progressively worse for women as they grow older. Absence from employment to care for children or sick older relatives often leave women facing a pension pay gap. This stands at a phenomenal 34.7% in Ireland. Women make up 78% of carers and it is only right that time spent as a carer is calculated into pension eligibility. We need to change outlooks.

The report calls on the Member States to introduce care credits for building up pension rights, to ensure those who take a break from employment to provide care are not disadvantaged in doing so and that the time spent as a carer is calculated into pension eligibility. The report further welcomes the EU Commission’s proposal to introduce Carers Leave and for them to proceed with this without delay.

Access to affordable childcare is a key imperative in tackling the poverty experienced by Women. The report recommends that Member States increase expenditure in line with the 1% of GDP proposal in the Barcelona Objectives and incentivise employer contributions to childcare costs. Ireland, for example, is way down the list with a spend of just 0.2%.

It recommends that priority be given to projects establishing childcare facilities in expenditure of EU funds such as under the European Social Fund. It calls for flexibility within the Growth and Stability Pact to allow for financing such facilities and recommends that the Commission should allocate specific resources through a co-financing mechanism to promote incentives where early childhood education and care facilities are lacking.

Women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence plays a part in the feminisation of poverty. Women who have exhausted paid leave are at risk of losing their jobs. Others who flee the family home can find themselves in emergency accommodation and at the mercy of the public services provided by the state. Financial independence is crucial for women escaping abusive relationships.

The report notes the introduction of paid domesticviolence leave in Australia and of unpaid leave in the US, and calls on the Commission and Member States to examine the feasibility of introducing a system of paid leave for survivors of domestic violence. A recent ICTU report found that 20% of employees have taken time off as a result of domestic violence and 2% of those lost their jobs as a result. Paid leave for domestic violence would enable a person to find alternative accommodation, attend court hearings and doctors’ appointments if their existing leave had been exhausted. It would help women maintain economic independence.

It is welcome that the European Parliament voted for a report that recognises that gender poverty must be addressed at an EU level. That the European Parliament with its neoliberal majority voted in favour of a report that rightly condemns austerity policies and cuts to public services is a significant achievement.

However, it is often the case that words are cheap and action is much harder to come by. If the EU is serious about addressing gender poverty, it must recognise that societal changes are essential. We need the political will for change. Men and women will benefit from a more equal social and economic order but unless men and women are prepared to fight for it, the status quo of three million more women than men living in poverty in the EU will remain.