Women Demand Better: Working class women on the front line of the ‘cost of living’ crisis

This Saturday will see an important protest of Regina Coeli workers who previously occupied their centre and won a commitment from the Minister of communities to establish a new women’s hostel in Belfast. This Saturday’s protest, 12pm at City Hall is demanding the minister fulfil that commitment but also highlighting the effect of the Cost of Living crisis on women. In this article, Roise McCann looks at the impact of this crisis.

In 2020 research conducted by the Women’s Regional Consortium (WRC) described as women as “shock absorbers” of ten years of Tory austerity and welfare cuts. Now, working class and poor women are the shock absorbers of the cataclysmic cost of living crisis. Working class women with low incomes are bearing the brunt of this crisis, and are at the forefront of a fightback against it.

The cost of living crisis has seen household energy, fuel, food and income rates increasing while wages remain stagnant. It has also laid bear systemic oppression imbued within the capitalist system. Women workers are some of the poorest, making up the majority of low-paid sectors such as hospitality, retail and healthcare. Women are also more likely to be employed in part-time work due to caring responsibilities. This, coupled with the fact that women head 91% of single parent households means that they are more likely to be partially or fully reliant on benefits. This year benefits were raised by 3.1%, paling to the current Consumer Prices Index rate standing at 10.1%. A five week wait for Universal Credit payments is cited by WRC research as a key reason that many women in Northern Ireland are borrowing more than men, from banks and family members to loan sharks, including paramilitaries. As food prices have reached a forty year high, many women are now relying on foodbanks to feed themselves and their families, with many going without meals in order to afford other basic necessities.

The cost of living crisis means further marginalisation of women and LGBTQ people, leaving the most vulnerable exposed to increased abuse and exploitation. Women’s Aid carried out a survey looking at the impact of the crisis on survivors of domestic abuse. An alarming two-thirds (66%) of survivors told the charity that abusers are now using the cost of living increase as a tool for coercive control, justifying further restrictions on their access to money. Increasingly, gender based violence is also contributing to housing insecurity for victims and survivors. Alternative accommodation for many is inaccessible, whether that be because of unaffordable private rent prices, oversubscribed shelters and hostels or growing waiting lists for social housing.

Frontline workers in majority female sectors like healthcare and teaching who were crucial to society operating during the Coronavirus are now facing the reality of paying for the post-pandemic economic crisis. NHS staff are still awaiting a 1-1.5% non-consolidated payment promised in January by the non-functioning executive. As such, staff are still subsidising a percentage of petrol costs while the price of fuel is at an all-time high; meaning workers are paying for the facilitation of necessary care to their patients from their own pockets. A NASUWT survey of women teachers found that 67% of female teachers are worried about the impact of a below-inflation teachers’ pay award on their ability to meet their everyday living costs, with 36% saying they are struggling to make ends meet on a daily or weekly basis.

With the turmoil of Liz Truss’ departure and the supplanting of Rishi Sunak in her wake; the attack on the working class from Tory leadership is far from over. Sunak as Chancellor oversaw the scrapping of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, launching many families already struggling into deeper hardship. Meanwhile, Stormont has not been functioning throughout the entirety of the cost of living crisis, with reports of an upcoming second election this December. In their absence, the working class have been getting organised with majority female workforces at the fore of upcoming significant escalation in strike actions. The Royal College of Nursing has launched its largest strike ballot in its history; with GMB nursing and ambulance staff also being balloted. Teaching unions NASUWT, members of INTO, NEU and NAHT are currently on strike, as well as members of the Ulster Teachers Union voting in favour of strike action. Female hostel workers organising Unite the Union’s Women Demand Better rally have called on workers to stand in solidarity with them and unhoused women against the cost of living crisis, as well as austerity, gender based violence and systemic sexism. It is through organised and coordinated strike action and solidarity that the working class can mount a genuine alternative to systematic poverty, oppression and exploitation exacerbated by this crisis.

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