13-20 June 2011 is Carers’ Week in the UK. It is marked to recognise and celebrate the contribution of UK’s 6 million carers who often go unnoticed. Amy Watson of Women’s Budget Group takes this opportunity to reflect on how much the government is doing to protect carers. She highlights the unpaid contribution of carers in the UK (many of whom are women) and the effect of public spending cuts and other government policies on the rights and income of carers.
Everyone provides care for others throughout their lives. In that our lives are characterised by relationships of dependence, we are all carers. But some people do more caring than others, both paid and unpaid. These people generally tend to be women.
Women’s Budget Group is concerned that the current UK coalition government is attacking and restricting the ability of women to provide paid caring services in fair employment conditions, and to provide unpaid care for others whilst earning a living that will allow them to exist outside of poverty throughout their lives. Furthermore, the government has shown little interest in proactively redistributing both paid and unpaid care more equally between the genders.
We see the measures outlined in the recent 2011 budget as building on the gender inequity entrenched in the 2010 Emergency Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review. Women are being asked to contribute far more than men to this government’s method of cutting the deficit.
Cumulatively, this amounts to a failure to address inequalities that exist between men and women, and an unwillingness to mitigate against austerity measures that further threaten gender equality.
Public versus Private
It was the growth of statutory care services that enabled many women to enter paid employment – unsurprisingly, it was often women who were recruited into jobs providing such services. Public sector employment practices became more sensitive to the caring responsibilities of its workforce, and so women remained in such jobs.
In comparison, private sector employment tends to be less flexible with respect to caring responsibilities, with a far larger gender pay gap than that in the public sector (20.8% in the private sector compared to 11.6% in the public sector). Not surprisingly, the private sector workforce is male dominated – although this is not the case for paid caring work.
Any growth in private sector employment – which the government appears to be relying upon as a strategy for economic recovery – may not therefore benefit women, neither in terms of the number of jobs provided, nor in their quality or flexibility, and will not replace what they will lose from the public sector.
The Right to Care
The government claims to be making a ‘bonfire of red tape’. But what is under attack are those rights that foster a more equal labour market, and which allow people to provide unpaid care for one another as well as earn a living.
The Government is still consulting on whether to extend the right to request flexible employment to all employers. Given the moratorium on new domestic legislation for micro businesses and start ups, there is a danger that if introduced, it would not genuinely apply to ‘all’. 14 million women and men who are employed in companies with less than 10 people would not gain this support for combining paid work and family responsibilities.
The government will continue to restrict the right to flexible work to those who have been employed in their current workplace for at least 6 months. This will particularly affect those with caring responsibilities for frail or elderly adults, whose needs are far less predictable than those of children. Among people in their 50s and early 60s a higher proportion of women (one in four) than of men (one in six) have such caring responsibilities.
It is a mistake to see flexible working as a cost to businesses. Recent research has shown a positive relationship between flexible working and individual performance. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that reducing workers’ rights will lead to an expansion of employment. Failing to extend this right is a false economy.
Pensions and older women’s poverty
This evident disregard for the caring responsibilities of women, and the government’s lack of interest in proactively redistributing both paid and unpaid care more equally between the genders has consequences further into the lifecycle of women.
The Chancellor has suggested that the state pension age (SPA) be raised in line with increasing life expectancy. There are several reasons why this may disadvantage women more than men, including ageist attitudes towards older women’s employment, gender pay gap and part-time pay penalty and the ill health women often experience towards the end of their lives through their greater longevity than men.
Older women have greater unpaid commitments than older men. The bulk of caring for grandchildren and older relatives is done by older women rather than men. Older women are also more likely than older men to engage in voluntary work in their communities as well as caring for neighbours and friends. Society as a whole would be greatly impoverished if older women did not perform this unpaid work.
Being unable to find paid employment may have a more severe effect on women’s incomes. Older women are less likely than men to have any private pension or redundancy payment to tide them over. In part this may be due to the expectation that they will receive their state pensions at 60. Women who are facing a faster time-table for raising their SPA will not have the opportunity to make alternative provisions for their own financial support.
It is always harder to re-enter employment than to retain an existing job and women’s employment patterns are more often fragmented by their caring roles, making them more likely to be without a job in their 60s. A longer lead-in time for the raising of the SPA is needed to enable women in their 50s to prepare for it.
Further, if the SPA is to be increased in line with life expectancy, some alternative form of financial support should be considered for those people in their 60s unable to take employment or contributing to society in ways other than paid employment.
There are also proposals for a new combined single-tier state pension. It is important that the single-tier pension is set at a level that is above the official poverty line, rather than at what is considered the minimum level that a pensioner is deemed to need. This is particularly important for women, since they tend to have smaller occupational and personal pensions, if any, than men.
Credits for caring and the 30 years rule have been a major advance for women, and any extension of the eligibility period would return to previous injustices in which women were penalized for their domestic and caring roles.
So long as there is any gender difference in caring responsibilities, women will continue to have fewer opportunities than men to build up their own private pension pot – as such, their standard of living will be more reliant on the level of the state pension.
The framing of the current government’s policies towards work/life balance suggest indifference or even hostility to women’s unpaid caring responsibilities, let alone the gender redistribution of these, and misunderstand the long term gendered effects on citizen’s poverty and well being.
(A fully referenced version of this text is available on the WBG website)
Amy Watson is the Coordinator of Women’s Budget Group. Amy obtained an MSc in Gender and Social Policy from the LSE in 2010, and holds a BA in History from the University of Leeds. She has previously worked in a variety of government and third sector organisations, and has recently been researching the European social economy as part of the SELUSI project at the LSE Department of Management.