It is most unlikely that women voted in June 2016 to be worse off, however Brexit leaves women in a very difficult place as it is likely to do real damage to women. Julie Ward MEP
Julie Ward MEP

On 26th November, Julie spoke at an event in Preston highlighting the risks of Brexit to Women. The event was organised by Wyre and Preston North CLP and was attended by women from across the constituency.

In the discussion, Julie emphasised the progress made by the European Union in the area of gender equality. The European Union has advanced Equal pay, maternity leave and services for women across Europe. Julie emphasised that people need to remember that we cannot allow Brexiteers to threaten the progress made with Europe.

The full report of the event can be found below:

Wyre and Preston North CLP: Report of the Women’s Forum meeting held on Monday 26th November 2018

WOMEN: The Risks of Brexit

Speaker: Julie Ward MEP

Introduction

 Julie opened the meeting by outlining her journey from community arts activist working with disadvantaged communities in the NE to her current role within the EU as a Labour MEP for the North West region (Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria and Cheshire). Elected in 2014, and a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn‘s anti-austerity politics, she has worked tirelessly across many subject areas but her particular interests in culture, education and women’s lives are reflected in her main responsibilities within the EU and it’s associated wider international work. Her main committee of responsibility is the Culture and Education Committee.

Julie’s values and experience have facilitated a strong focus on human rights and social justice. She is clearly a very proactive MEP and a member of the 20-strong European Parliamentary Labour Party. Listening to Julie quickly puts paid to the myth that MEP’s are lazy and unproductive – it is a great pity that most of their important work goes unacknowledged and unnoticed by the UK public. Julie highlighted the lack of citizenship education as a root cause of anti-EU sentiment in the UK. For Julie, Europe is much more than a trading bloc, rather it is about People, Peace and embracing Change. Julie readily acknowledged that not all is perfect in the EU; this is reflected in her campaigning role within Another Europe is Possible https://www.anothereurope.org

 

As a member of the European Parliament‘s Regional Development Committee, Julie worked to ensure that the 2015 flood victims in Cumbria, the wider NW and elsewhere, received EU Solidarity Funding. This was achieved despite the apathy displayed by David Cameron. As a member of the Committee on Women‘s Rights and Gender Equality she has been instrumental in raising the profile of women and girls who are victims (and survivors) of gender-based violence and is an advocate of mandatory sex and relationship education as a means towards building respectful relationships between men and women and between same-sex partners.

Julie was quite clear that Brexit is likely to do real damage to women who will be disproportionately affected by a bonfire of workers’ rights, Julie outlined how EU membership has been extremely significant for the rights of women in the UK, particularly in the area of discrimination and equality rights, even though the needs of women (and children) have largely been absent from the Brexit debates.

Her contribution made it clear that Britain’s membership of the EU has led to major improvements in the rights of women at work. EU law has extended rights to equal pay and strengthened protection from sex discrimination. It has improved the treatment of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace and introduced new entitlements for parents to take time off. Many women have also benefited from improved basic rights, such as paid holidays, that were introduced at EU level – many of the two million workers who had no paid holiday before the Working Time Directive were part-time women. It has also had a marked impact into research around women’s lives and the associated funding of services that have been developed out of this research and funded by EU money, e.g. the DAPHNE fund.

These decisions have proved to be of substantial, and sometimes of profound, importance to UK domestic law. Domestic discrimination law is now consolidated in Great Britain (though not Northern Ireland) into the Equality Act 2010 which regulates discrimination, victimisation and harassment because of sex, pregnancy and maternity and gender reassignment as well as race (broadly defined), sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, religion or belief, age and disability, across a range of activities including employment, education, public functions, membership organisations and the provision of goods, facilities and services. However post-Brexit, and in the absence of access to legal aid (this having been savagely cut under the Tories austerity measures), it is hard to see how women will be able to challenge discrimination etc.

Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination

In 1984 the UK government was forced to include equal pay for work of equal value in the Equal Pay Act 1970. This was only achieved after the European Commission had taken the UK government to court. The original Act had only given women a right to equal pay with men doing the same work or in the same grade as them. The right to equal pay for work of equal value allowed women to challenge lower pay for jobs that were seen as ‘women’s work’ compared to ‘men’s work’ of a similar level of skill, effort or responsibility. Many landmark cases followed: cooks comparing themselves with craftsmen; cleaners and dinner ladies getting equal pay with refuse collectors; and speech therapists getting equal pay with clinical psychologists. However, even today as we can see from the recent strike organised by women workers employed by Glasgow City Council, this struggle goes on.

EU law has also helped women working part-time gain equal pay and benefits compared to full-time workers (on a pro-rata basis). It has ruled that to give them less would be indirect sex discrimination as it is mainly women who work part-time. This led to about 400,000 part-time women workers in the UK gaining an occupational pension for the first time.

Pregnancy, Maternity and Rights to Family Leave

As a result of EU law, rights to paid time off for antenatal appointments and the duties on employers to protect pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers from harm in the workplace were introduced in the UK. EU law has also guaranteed women a minimum period of maternity leave, a right to return to the same job and protection from dismissal or any other unfavourable treatment because of pregnancy or maternity.

Present day rights for parents and carers to take time off in an emergency and for parents to take 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave per child also have their origins in EU law. According to the TUC in the UK, one in 10 working parents of pre-school children (and one in five single parents) rely on parental leave each year. Similarly nearly one in four parents take time off to deal with emergencies like a child falling ill or childcare arrangements breaking down.

Services for Women

Julie’s approach, drawn from her community arts background is one of seeing marginalised groups as ‘experts of their own experiences’. This fits well with the methodology used within the EU where the voices and views of various interest groups as stakeholders are systematically analysed and explored. She highlighted how women pay the price for austerity as workers, mothers, carers and consumers. A major gain from the EU is that of safe consumer goods. While Brexiters may argue that post-Brexit there will be less red tape, in reality it is such rules and regulations that keep us safe from harm, (e.g. chlorinated chicken from the US).

Julie was able to point out that without the support and safety net of the EU then the Labour Party will not be able to deliver the excellent 2017 Manifesto commitments, pointing out that as GDP inevitably shrinks then there are real fears of further austerity.

Julie urged the women in attendance to get involved with Women for Europe, active on Twitter @Women_4_Europe

Risks of Brexit

While there remains a great deal of uncertainty following the government‘s recent Brexit deal with the EU, what is clear is that a government that has historically been keen on cutting ‘burdens on business’ and minimizing state intervention would be unlikely to leave workers’ rights intact.

Those rights that are kept after Brexit could, by using the draconian measures contained in the government‘s Henry 8th powers, be made less effective. For example, EU law says that compensation for victims of sex discrimination must not be capped. But Conservative MPs and advisers have said that they want to limit discrimination awards. Similarly the limit on unfair dismissal compensation (which is not protected in EU law) has recently been lowered.

Many of the improvements in working women’s rights have come from EU case law – court rulings that then had to be followed in similar cases across all member states. However when (if) Britain does leave the EU, the UK government would be free to override any judgment that improved workers’ rights.

Similarly after we leave the EU, British women would not benefit from any future gains, for example, the recent consultation between trade unions and employers at EU level on a new package of rights to improve work/life balance, including proposals for carers’ leave, flexible working and stronger protections from dismissal for new mothers. These are areas that Julie has worked on. Existing services, especially those used to support the most vulnerable women will be cut, as access to EU funding is no longer available. Membership of the EU has facilitated the development of numerous innovative services for women and children such as opportunities to benefit from such provision as enjoyed by women in other parts of Europe will no longer exist.

Conclusion

It is most unlikely that women voted in June 2016 to be worse off, however Brexit leaves women in a very difficult place as it is likely to do real damage to women. Even leaving aside specific discrimination law, women are disproportionately numbered among the most vulnerable workers and members of society. As such we are likely to be disproportionately affected by the expected bonfire of provisions such as entitlements to paid holiday and to maximum weekly hours and parental leave rights. Brexit also poses a specific threat to many elements of discrimination law that in the eyes of the Tories are seen as ‘business-unfriendly’. These include equal pay for work of equal value, as well as protection from pregnancy-related discrimination, which is already rife. While it is perhaps unlikely that these rights will simply be abolished, the assault that has already been launched on their enforcement is likely to continue with early losses falling most heavily onto women.

 

If Brexit does happen, we as the Labour Party must do everything in our power to prevent such damage to women’s lives.

 

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