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Tories start to put the boot in

As UK household debt reaches £1.6 trillion - affecting women disproportionately - SABBY DHALU sees little in new Tory government policies that would address the crisis

THIS year’s International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to build a movement against the forthcoming attacks by the Boris Johnson-led Tory government, and remind us of the impact of 10 years of austerity on women, African, Asian and Caribbean communities and the racism, Islamophobia and anti-semitism that accompanied it.

Perhaps the most staggering impact of austerity on women is the decline of life expectancy since 2011 of women living in the poorest communities in England, as found by leading expert on health inequalities, Professor Sir Michael Marmot.

For the first time in 100 years life expectancy growth has stalled over the past decade.

A decade of austerity also hit women harder than men, and African, Asian, Caribbean and disabled women hardest of all.

Joint research by the Runnymede Trust and Women’s Budget Group showed that much of this is due to universal credit, with low-paid and unemployed black women losing £5,000 a year, even with income-tax cuts and an increase in the national living wage taken into account.

The research also showed that the poorest African, Caribbean and Asian households are set to lose about 20 per cent of their annual living standards by the end of this year, due to the combined impact of cuts to social security and public services. Single mothers will be 18 per cent worse off.

Austerity has left household debt at an all-time high. According to the Women’s Budget Group, in 2019 UK households collectively owed £1.6 trillion, which is 13 per cent higher than at the time of the 2008 global financial crisis, paying an estimated £50 billion per year, or £137 million per day, in interest payments.

Women are also more likely to incur debt to pay for everyday necessities: figures from debt advice provider StepChange show that 61 per cent of those getting into debt to purchase everyday necessities are women.

International Women’s Day falls just days before the budget and while precisely what will be announced remains to be seen, it is unlikely that austerity will be reversed.

The 2019 Spending Review was supposed to end austerity, however the spending announcements did not go anywhere near enough to reverse a decade of cuts.

2020 has also seen the implementation of Brexit and reports indicate that the government prefers a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period.

With growth already stagnating, this will almost certainly lead to job losses, a negative impact on GDP and a possible recession.

Perhaps this is why the government has unleashed a wave of racist measures, to divide and distract working-class communities, while living standards are further attacked.

One of the first pieces of legislation Johnson’s government passed was to deny unaccompanied child refugees the chance to be reunited with family members in Britain, and EU nationals who have lived here for decades are being asked to offer “proof” of their right to stay.

The shameful deportation to Jamaica of people who came to Britain as children is a clear sign that this government has no intention of righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal.

Former government adviser Andrew Sabisky, a eugenicist, was forced to resign, but his views were never directly refuted by Johnson.

Durham Tory MP Dehenna Davidson has been pictured with members of the far-right Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance (DFLA), while Shrewsbury Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski spoke at a conference with the far-right League Party’s Matteo Salvini and anti-semitic Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

Johnson called off the inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory Party. The government has also failed to take a lead in combatting the scapegoating of the Chinese community as a result of the coronavirus, and instead intensified the atmosphere of a “hostile environment.”

The announcement of a points-based immigration system denying visas to low-paid workers and those with limited English is a historic anti-migrant shift in government policy, and the latest in a series of measures pointing to a racist offensive under Johnson’s administration.

This new system is also likely to impact on women disproportionately. The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) said: “The government’s proposals privilege occupations in which women are underrepresented and are likely to mean that migrant women will find it harder than migrant men to reach the 70-point threshold.”

It added that “the government’s commitment to give top priority to those with the highest skills and the greatest talents: scientists, engineers, academics and other highly skilled workers, as well as STEM graduates, will have a gendered impact as a result of the extreme gender disparities in these occupations: for example just 12 per cent of those working in engineering are women.”

The prioritisation of STEM disadvantages women and fails to acknowledge the extraordinary value and high-skilled work done by mainly women in caring occupations such as nurses, midwives and carers.

Many of these occupations’ starting salaries fall beneath the salary threshold or operate on zero-hours contracts or on a precarious basis.

For example, 24 per cent of carers are on zero-hours contracts, so it is nearly impossible to predict their annual salary.

For those working set hours, average starting salaries fall between £16,000 and £19,500, which is beneath the government’s minimum transferable threshold.

These jobs are low-paid, but they are not low-skilled, and they are vital for the wellbeing of society and the economy.

This renewed racist offensive can only be fought with co-ordinated, united action. That is why we are marching in London and Glasgow, on March 21, as part of the “World Against Racism” day of action marking UN Anti-Racism Day.

The London demonstration will be addressed by Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz and Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj.

For further information visit www.standuptoraism.org.uk
Sabby Dhalu is Stand up to Racism co-convener

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