The financial crisis broke out ten years ago and rapidly spread across the globe, morphing into a fully-fledged economic crisis. Today, in Europe, it has given rise to another situation, which can best be described as a crisis of care. Austerity, administered as universal remedy to EU states, particularly affects the infrastructure required to care for ourselves and others: healthcare, nursing, education and childcare.
Women are hit by austerity in a two- or even three-fold manner. Not only do women constitute the overwhelming majority of the workforce in these areas, but they also bear the brunt of compensating for the retreating welfare state in the family context. In some countries, these developments have coincided with an increasing return to traditional family models and the far-reaching restriction of abortion rights.
The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, in close collaboration with Die Linke’s parliamentary working group on women’s issues, has hence produced studies on the impact of austerity on women’s living conditions in both eastern and western Europe. Their findings are rather depressing. On the one hand, they demonstrate the similarity of the disastrous developments in many countries. However, they also underscore the fact that the dire situation faced by many women is the result of political decisions. These decisions can and must be countered by appropriate alternative policies. Indeed, in some cases, progress is already being made on this front.
National governments reacted to the financial/economic crisis in various ways. The main difference between their responses was the severity of their crisis management, which depended on the varying impact of the crisis. Nonetheless, another factor was the extent to which austerity measures had already been in place beforehand. Ireland, Spain and Greece reacted to the economic slump with severe cuts, as dictated by the Troika (a body composed of the IMF, ECB and EU Commission, and lacking democratic legitimacy). However, in post-socialist countries, some of these measures had already been part of “hidden austerity” (Poland: 11), dating back to the transformation period of the 1990s. These measures were simply continued. In Germany, too, the long-term reorganisation of the welfare state and labour market brought the country through the crisis without any greater perturbations. Being the hegemonic power in Europe, Germany saw its role in extending this approach to other countries and codifying it through the European Fiscal Compact. This led to the state of “permanent austerity” (Ireland: 12) we currently see across Europe.
A central element here are widespread cuts in the female-dominated public sector—in administration as well as the education, healthcare and nursing sectors. At the beginning of the crisis, around 40 percent of working women in Greece were employed in the public sector. In Ireland, women constituted some 80 percent of employees in healthcare and 85 percent in education. In Ukraine, 76 percent of all civil servants were women. Women were particularly affected by cuts leading to layoffs or the intensification of work after hiring freezes, which was moreover combined with falling wages and an increase in working hours. Investment in public infrastructure was ceased, funding was withdrawn and many institutions, especially hospitals and childcare facilities, were either privatised or closed down, a process which had already begun in Germany in the early 2000s. Again, women were disproportionately affected. Not only did they constitute the bulk of paid care professionals, but they also had to absorb the lack of public services available to their own families.
Over the same period, many countries implemented cuts in social services intended for families. In Ireland, child benefits were reduced by up to one third, while the costs for childcare remained the second highest of all OECD countries. Essentially the same occurred in Lithuania and Ukraine. Spanish mothers lost their entitlement to a one-time “baby cheque” worth 25,000 euro and traditionally paid out after the birth of a child. Of course, this primarily affected single mothers without family members to support them and provide unpaid care work. Indeed, in Ukraine single mothers suffered specific cuts. Following the introduction of extremely strict means-testing, a third of all single-parent households lost their entitlement to support. The disastrous effects of such measures are illustrated in Ireland. Today, not only do single mothers comprise 30 percent of public housing tenants and recipients of rent supplements, but they are also disproportionately at risk of homelessness—a new, alarming development.
A Woman’s Place—Back In the Kitchen?
In some countries, family provisions have even been expanded to promote only the traditional family model (father, mother, children). Particularly in Poland, but also in Croatia, this followed a decades-old ideology of “family mainstreaming”. The commodification of care work is accompanied by the diversion of state funds to families, which now replace the public institutions that formerly provided care or childcare. In the process, the Polish government increased its maternity allowance and introduced an additional monthly payment for every second and subsequent child, independent of the parents’ income. In Croatia, too, the parental allowance was substantially increased over recent years, while public infrastructure, including care for the elderly, fell prey to the cuts. Without adequate public services, this pronatalist policy in the interest of national economic development amounts to an individualization of care work. It is a development that can also be observed in other European countries.
In some countries, the relocation of care tasks back within the family is framed ideologically by a public discourse of traditional values promoted by conservative and religious actors. In Croatia, welfare cuts were accompanied by a referendum in which people approved of the constitutional definition of marriage as denoting only the bond between a man and a woman. Moreover, it is hardly a coincidence that, given this kind of social climate, some countries have seen attacks on abortion rights – for instance, Spain in 2014 and Poland in 2016. Only powerful feminist protests stopped these measures.
“Work Like a Man, Care Like a Woman”
The care crisis affects women not only in terms of paid and unpaid care work. It also indirectly affects their control over their own bodies and their general participation in economic activity, thereby impacting on their pensions, too. Drastic labour market reforms have been an important component of all austerity measures. Their main features include flexibilization and liberalization in favour of employers’ interests. All over Europe, fixed-term positions and atypical employment relations are on the rise. In Croatia, women are finding it increasingly difficult to balance family and work. Statistically speaking, care for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities represents the biggest obstacle to women’s participation in the Croatian labour market (besides taking responsibility for their own families more generally). In Spain and Germany, women constitute around 80% of wage earners in part-time employment, although they have not been as comprehensively driven out of the workforce. As Mary P. Murphy and Pauline Cullen, the authors of the study on Ireland, put it: women are required to “work like a man, care like a woman.” (Ireland: 19).
This leads to increasing precarity over the course of women’s lives, since on average they receive a lower gross hourly wage worldwide (the so-called the “gender pay gap”). Pensions continue to depend mainly on a person’s career, and old-age poverty affecting women is already a reason for great concern. However, the full impact of austerity on women’s pensions will only really be revealed in future decades.
Organizing the Resistance
At first, the economic crisis itself mainly affected industries with a primarily male workforce (car manufacturing, construction, etc.), although its political management in the form of austerity was doubtlessly to the detriment of women. Nonetheless, in many places women are not quietly accepting the role of victims. In Germany, women are striking for better working conditions and staff increases in the care sector. They are also taking to the streets, accompanied by feminist activists, to demand better labour contracts in social and educational professions. In Greece, the most determined activists in the anti-austerity movements were women. This often led to more comprehensive emancipatory processes in their communities. In Spain, it is no coincidence that the feminist movement is the principal remainder left by the formerly powerful 15M movement—and it continues to grow stronger. In Croatia, actions that explicitly emphasise the link between gender relations and social issues are on the rise.
Most other countries are yet to draw this link between feminism and social protests. For example, in Ukraine a fragmented left is confronted with a powerful right-wing public-political discourse. Leftist arguments are largely absent from a middle-class model of feminism. Ireland is similar, where the massive (and successful) campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion was hardly connected to any left-wing social struggles or campaigns. We can attribute this to cuts of up to 40 percent in state funding, which were an enormous challenge for certain women’s groups, and even more so for left-feminist actions.
Political structures dealing with women’s issues at the parliamentary level have also been weakened. In Ireland, for instance, committees that formerly worked specifically on questions of women’s rights have been subjected to the somewhat vague principle of “equality. As a result, there is no longer any committee with a mandate to address women’s equality specifically. In Spain, the Ministry for Equality has been scrapped altogether and its programmes have seen their budgets cut. In Germany, the government now provides fewer funds for women’s crisis centres. All this makes new ventures and ideas, and the regaining of lost ground, increasingly necessary.
Placing Life at the Heart of the Debate
What could a feminist alternative to the crisis of care look like? Campillo Poza proposes abandoning our focus on a type of labour participation that is incompatible with care work and hence with a good life more generally. We must separate social security from wage labour, radically reduce the working week to 20–25 hours, invest in the care sector and build an educational system where caring for one another is an essential component. In short, the task is to place security in life at the heart of the debate and to render wage labour subordinate to it. Unfortunately, the different studies discussed here also testify to difficulties in communication between feminist organizations and left-wing parties. Furthermore, the latter sometimes address feminist grievances inadequately, despite the efforts of their female membership.
Aliki Kosyfologou concludes the study on Greece by addressing this problem: “The issue of building a leftist feminist alternative to austerity is bound to radical change of the shape and the internal structure of left parties and political groups. The idea of feminization of politics, which is on many occasions wrongly interpreted in the political discourse, can provide some guidelines on: equal representation not only through technical measures such as quotas but through reinforcing a feminist political culture, adoption of a more inclusive participatory model of decision-making and political practice, and embracing diversity that does not jeopardise the people’s unity.” (Greece: 42) This applies both to national policies and on the European level—and not just because of the upcoming EU elections!
Alex Wischnewski was until recently a research fellow for feminist politics in Die Linke’s federal parliamentary grouping, and now works at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung on global feminist topics. Translated by Jan-Peter Herrmann and Chris Fenwick for lingua•trans•fair.