The government bangs on about ‘hard work’ – but few are harder working than women carers stuck on zero-hours contracts, writes BERNADETTE HORTON
WORKING poor women, those who are technically living an inch over the breadline, are a forgotten army — but one of the most targeted groups by this sexist anti-women coalition government.
These women — and I am one of them myself — go about their daily lives in a perpetual state of struggle and fight. Many are juggling low-paid, part-time work with caring duties.
Since time began — and we have not moved very far forward in reality — women have been the carers.
Whether that involves bringing up children and abandoning careers to take part-time work; or giving birth to a disabled child and knowing your own life has changed forever in order to become a full-time carer; or having your career, then turning into a carer to look after elderly parents while juggling a less well-paid job to fit it all in, women have had to face up to caring realities that can often choke their own lives.
It often feels that David Cameron and co have got round the table and discussed budget cuts and then made a deliberate decision that they will fall on the working poor women’s shoulders.
Take school lunches, for example. If a woman with several kids takes a part-time job, then free school lunches are stopped completely. If, say, like me, you had four children at school together, this equates to £2.50 to £3 per day, per child — totalling at least £10 per day.
This is why you will find many children of working poor parents taking sandwiches or even missing lunch altogether when times are hard. Likewise the school uniform grant in many areas is reserved for those on income support only.
I have often envied poorer families having access to a school uniform grant, especially as our local secondary school has a blazer as part of its uniform.
Saving up for the full costs of uniforms in my household used to start in May, well before the September return-to-school date. It is the working poor families in this situation who fall through the gap.
Once you take part-time work to to help lift you ever so slightly out of grinding poverty, you are soon shoved back down as you become liable for a host of new costs that you didn’t have when you were technically too poor.
Many women with caring duties for a disabled child are invisible.
The £61.35 a week carers’ allowance is a total insult and a stubborn stain on what is supposed to be a “compassionate” society where the vulnerable and their carers are looked after.
The government feels no need to tackle the injustice of it. Carers are so way down on the target voters lists beloved of spin doctors.
Carers exist in an invisible sphere of duties which save our social services and the NHS millions of pounds every year.
I often fantasise of a one-day carers’ strike that would bring this country to a grinding halt — but governments know the bulk of carers are women who would never abandon their caring duties and they rely on this to keep us in our place.
Again the working poor carer who feels desperate enough to supplement the £61.35 a week with a part-time job is immediately punished by one of the most pernicious rules which states if you earn a penny over £102 per week your entire carers’ allowance is stopped.
How the hell can any government say this is fair?
This rule is deliberately targeted at keeping women subdued and in poverty.
But you can’t start a carers’ revolution when you are constantly stressed, juggling caring and work, and wondering where the next meal is coming from.
In my case, when my autistic son was a baby I yearned to be able to stand for political office and change the narrative, but caring and poverty held me back.
Politics and outside interests became flickers of light within me, but they were never extinguished.
Paradoxically, this Con-Dem government has fanned the flames, and now my son is older I am able to speak out on behalf of the legions of women who are in this “locked-down” position of caring and low-paid work.
We deserve a voice and those who best understand carers’ needs are those who have experienced being a carer.
Shouting from the rooftops and screaming for change at every turn is something I take very seriously.
Freezing child benefit and freezing working tax credits have to be two of the biggest targeted policies towards women in general, but they fall especially hard on the shoulders of working poor women.
It is this show of disregard by the Bullingdon Boys on the Tory front bench that is punishing the “hard-working families” this government rants on about on a weekly basis.
Is there anyone more hard-working than an agency-employed woman with children working on a zero-hours contract, not knowing how many hours she will work from week to week or what her take-home pay will be? Answer that, Cameron.
There are few people more deserving than struggling working poor women, for whom life might just be a bit easier if child benefit and working tax credits were increased every year as they should be.
Margaret Thatcher froze child benefit for three successive years and was given the boot. I’m no fan of John Major but he recognised just how much damage had been done to women and children by this cruel policy and immediately increased child benefit.
Working tax credits are necessary due to the years employers have been aided and abetted by government in paying poverty wages.
The “minimum wage” has come to mean the bare minimum that employers can get away with. This has had a huge impact on women, who may be the sole breadwinner in a family.
By freezing working tax credits this rancid government has laughed in the faces of the working poor.
Iain Duncan Smith’s policies at the DWP openly imply those on working tax credits simply are not working enough hours and need to work longer and harder to somehow “lift themselves out of poverty wages.”
Employers are given an open door to exploit women especially, who are likely to stay quiet on zero-hours contracts as they are desperate to hold on to any job.
This government has an appalling attitude to women, the like of which we have never seen before.
It relies on us working poor women to be compliant, subservient, fearful and obedient. The fightback starts here. Who’s joining me?
Bernadette Horton is chair of North East Wales Unite Community and trade union liaison officer for her Constituency Labour Party. Visit her website at www.bernadettehorton.co.uk.