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VOICES OF SCOTLAND For women workers there can be no going back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic

Presenteeism, the blurring of home and work, and domestic violence are emerging as increased challenges for our movement to address, requiring new union organising tools, says LYNN HENDERSON

WOMEN across four nations joined a virtual gathering of the TUC women’s council of the Isles on the morning of February 19.  

This long-established annual meeting of women’s committees of the trade-union centres of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, saw its first virtual networking event.

The Scottish TUC is the 2021 host, and hopes to be able to hold a physical event in November when the world’s eyes are on Glasgow for COP26. 

In the mean time, more than 60 women came together last Friday to present and share trade union and social achievements and challenges in their respective nations.  

During the opening panel discussion, Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj declared that it is because of women’s leadership in our movement during the pandemic that we have been able to ensure that women’s issues are not an add-on. There are a couple of really important themes here.

The feminisation of homeworking is a particular challenge for our movement.  

It presents both concerns and opportunities for future work policies and the deployment of different union organising tools. 

Scottish TUC deputy general secretary Linda Somerville believes the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic cuts across women’s roles both inside and outside the workplace.  

The blurring division between home and work has affected many women profoundly.  

In addition to trying to maintain work productivity, the balance of domestic responsibilities, including caring and home schooling, have fallen on women in the household. 

This was highlighted in a TUC survey in January in which 50,000 women workers participated. The TUC found that 78 per cent of working mothers have not been offered furlough by their employer during the pandemic, while 71 per cent have had furlough requests refused during the latest school closures. 

The survey confirmed that is predominantly working mothers who are bearing the brunt of the double burden of juggling work and childcare. The vast majority of these women are left completely unsupported by both their employers and the government.

Most chilling in the pandemic is the increase of domestic violence during lockdowns and restrictions. Women’s support services continue to strive to find a place of safety in the crisis. With little physical time away from home, trade-union reps supporting members suffering from domestic violence are having to work in new ways.  

Therefore it was inspiring to learn of the achievements of women in the Irish Finance Service Union (FSU) in winning a domestic-violence workplace agreement.

FSU reps have negotiated practical measures with employers on domestic-violence awareness training, counselling for staff, special paid leave for victims, adaptations to performance targets, flexible working arrangements and salary advances on request.  

In recognising that domestic violence can also be a workplace issue, the agreement covers measures on relocation and redeployment, safe working such as avoidance of lone working, and access procedures.  

Greater pressure on women workers from employers and presenteeism in the working day must be tackled. Women are balancing their work around domestic circumstances, home schooling and caring responsibilities. Flexible working hours, which can help this balance, can also lead to little rest time for many working from home.

On the upside, homeworking affords union organising opportunities to contact members directly, without the employer blocking or controlling access. Phone banking, peer-to-peer texting, surveys and e-petition participation are all on the rise.  

Union meetings held on virtual platforms have a higher attendance rate than physical meetings outside of working hours and women’s participation in these meetings and trade-union education is on the increase. 

For women workers there can be no going back to “normal” after the pandemic.  

Collective power through trade-union activity is the strongest tool in our box, and we need to harness it now so that women’s work is not left behind.

 Lynn Henderson is senior national officer at PCS union.

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