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Women and the European Union

Paper presented by Deirdre Uí Bhrógáin,
National Executive Committee, Communist Party of Ireland,
to Desmond Greaves Summer School, 2009

The title of this morning’s session involves two very large subjects—women, and the European Union. I would like to make some points that I hope will lead to a broader consideration of the European Union and of how it treats women than what usually takes place in the media, in the establishment, and among pro-Lisbon political parties.

It is frequently stated that women were “given” equal rights by the European Union—with some credit going to the women’s movement of the 1970s. But attaining equal rights is only the first part of the struggle for women’s actual rights, because, for women to have fulfilled lives they have to fight, together with men, for decent wages, housing, education, and health services. We must not fall into the trap of assessing EU policies for women solely on the basis of equality, on which it has placed so much emphasis.
     The struggle for women’s rights has a long history. In the first part of the twentieth century the women’s movement displayed extraordinary will, encompassing not only the struggle for women’s rights but also the fight against fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece and, in other countries, defence against fascist invasion. So important was women’s contribution that the post-war constitutions of the former fascist countries, with the exception of West Germany, contained measures for equality for women from the beginning, though many were later removed by conservative governments.
     After the Second World War women continued to fight for equality in every country, and it has been established by feminist and other historians that the main determinants of women’s equality were the strength of the women’s movement, women’s mobilisation on issues, the presence of left-wing parties, and the level of social services provided by governments. The EEC (later the European Union) gradually inherited these standards from each of its member-states, but these standards varied enormously from country to country. That those countries that had extensive public provisions, especially publicly funded child care, had better equality levels for women is evident from the advanced position of women in the Nordic countries. I believe the European socialist countries also contributed to this process by having already introduced equal rights for women in all areas.
     In Ireland, as a consequence of the conservative forces that won the Civil War, the constitution of 1937 followed the norm of conservative Catholic and Christian Democratic parties, which have a well-known policy of confining women to the home, for caring and childbearing. From the beginning women fought against these restrictions. Many of those involved in the struggle for independence continued to fight for women’s rights; but the economic conditions made this very difficult. However, the struggle was maintained by such organisations as the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers, the Irish Housewives’ Association, the National Association of Widows, and the Irish Women Workers’ Union—a militant union that was a ground-breaker in establishing better conditions and pay. Later the Women’s Advisory Council of the ICTU fought internally against certain male trade unionists who were afraid of women taking their jobs at lower pay, against legal and employer restrictions, and against low pay and conditions. Letters to Taoisigh from 1930 up to the present show the continuous demands for reform. This was despite the drain of young women through emigration in the 1950s, when twice as many women as men emigrated—not the norm in other large-emigration countries, such as Italy and Spain.
     From the 1930s women fought against the marriage bar for teachers and civil servants and in private industry, which required them to retire upon marriage, against unequal property rights, for the repeal of the Conditions of Employment Act (1936), which limited women in certain industries and also limited their relative numbers, against the lack of services regarding reproduction and contraception, and against discrimination in social welfare. They fought for access to restricted professions, for divorce, for the right to have abortions, for the right to serve on juries, for the guardianship of children, for maternity services, and for equal pay and promotional opportunities.
     In 1968 several women’s groups, influenced through attending international women’s conferences, particularly the United Nations Women’s Conference, set up an ad-hoc group to pressure the Government into setting up a commission, which resulted in the Council for the Status of Women. This council produced two reports, which made very radical demands.
     The late 1960s saw a rise in civil rights movements and an increased movement towards left politics, which influenced the women’s movement and heightened the pressure on governments to implement changes. In the 1970s a new group of feminists founded notably the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, Irish Women United, and community women’s groups, all of which were vociferous in widening the range of demands while pressing on with existing campaigns on equal rights and services. These groups were to a large extent made up of articulate women in the media and the law, joining with women activists, women trade unionists and left parties, fighting for rights in housing, welfare, health care, and a more equal distribution of wealth. Their actions also led to the setting up of independent support services, such as the Rape Crisis Centre, CHERISH, AIM, ADAPT, and Open Door Counselling. Despite never being mass organisations, the influence of these groups was powerful in changing public attitudes. Nothing was handed to us on a plate.
     These pressures led to the setting up of the Women’s Representative Committee by the Government to look at the demands of the Council for the Status of Women, particularly for equal pay and equal employment opportunities, and at the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, which had been set up in 1975. But the Government was slow to implement anything that would lead to better child care, housing or social services beyond a bare minimum, such as community clinics.
     This broad outline provides the background to the position of Irish women before Ireland joined the EEC in 1973. Since then there have been directives on equal pay, social security, and pensions, on equality of treatment in employment, and on sexual harassment, together with judgements by the European Court of Justice, but always in the field of employment services and the market. Irish women also used the European Court of Human Rights (under the Council of Europe) to secure rights, particularly those relating to reproduction and constitutional rights. These did improve conditions for women in the areas of employment, social security, and reproductive rights; but I would argue that—as happened in many other countries—they would have come about anyway as the objective conditions changed. It may not have happened at the exact moment of the EU directives; but to say that we would not have achieved it without them is to say that Irish women are somehow backward or are inherently incapable of fighting their cause—something that the historical outline I have given does not support.
     The big question is: what is the overall effect of the European Union on women?
     The concept of equal pay was first set out by the EEC in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. This arose because of the relative differences in women’s wages between the original member-states. The French fought for its inclusion, as they strongly believed they would be at a trading disadvantage without it. Women and the left parties in France had been successful in improving pay for women since the 1930s (though interrupted by the Second World War), and the 1946 constitution gave equality to women in all domains. Women were a strong force in the strikes and demonstrations for “bread and roses” in 1946–47, and as result the principle of equal pay and a narrowing of the the pay gap in collective bargaining were achieved, including a single-rate minimum wage in 1950 and better social services. Because the French government was worried about other countries not having similar provisions, it raised the issue of competition from lower-wage countries and succeeded in having equal pay included in the treaty.
     Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome (later renamed article 141) was modelled on the earlier ILO Equal Remuneration Convention (Convention No. 100), agreed in 1951, but left out the crucial extra protection of equal pay for work of equal value. As the EEC was set up to co-ordinate markets, its objective was to ensure the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services. All its regulations and directives, and all cases at the European Court of Justice, deal with equality issues only insofar as they relate to unfair competition or the hindrance of the market, despite declarations in some directives about social content.
     Nothing was done to implement the principle of equal pay for eleven years. The first demands for its implementation came from women trade unionists in Belgium, who went on strike in the FN Herstal munitions company on the grounds that their highest pay was lower than that of the lowest-paid male worker doing the simplest tasks, even though they were operating three complex machines at once. Their placards read “Implement article 119.” They won their fight, and its successful outcome heightened awareness among women both within and outside Belgium and in particular that of two Belgian feminist lawyers, Eliane Vogel-Polksy and Marie-Thérèse Cuvelliez. They were looking for a suitable case with which to test the equal pay provision, which led in 1971 to the case of Defrenne v. Sabena (the Belgian airline). Women flight attendants were required to retire at forty, and their pensions were consequently lower, while a later reorganisation of the pension scheme excluded women altogether. This case became three cases, which ended in 1978. They were initially lost but were eventually won in principle, with little compensation. The change in the court’s attitude is attributed to increasing pressure from the women’s movement and to the need of the EEC to present a better image.
     That it was the women’s movement that pushed regulation in the 1970s was confirmed in 1983 by Niels Ole Andersen, Denmark’s labour and social affairs attaché in Brussels, who said in an interview that the attitude of the judges was brought about “by the strength of the women’s movement at that point.” It took thirty years of directives, national implementation laws and judgements by the European Court of Justice to come anywhere near equal pay, social security, and pensions; and this process was always held up by economic advantage and rivalry. Countries used varying tactics for delaying and looked for extra time, even refusing to comply, as for instance in the case of the Netherlands, by saying that they would implement the directive when France did, as by now French gains had been eroded.
     Instead of its recommendations and directives, the European Union, if it really cared about women’s rights, could have implemented the much superior ILO Convention No. 100, or could have issued regulations, which are immediately enforceable.
     Other reasons for EU equality laws were the falling birth rate and the need for women to be enticed into a cheap work force as well as being expected to continue being carers for the family. Women are also used as a reserve army of labour to undermine men who are seeking higher wages. The market also needed more consumers for its products, and an income for women was another way of extending consumerism and financing personal debt. These economic motives led to the protection of pregnant women from dismissal, maternity leave, and the right to return to work, while such areas as child care, public health services and housing were always outside the remit of the treaties. The right to join a union as a fundamental right, which is in the ILO, UN and Council of Europe conventions, was never included in EU treaties. As all statistics show that women who are members of trade unions have higher pay, it is not likely that the European Union would recognise such a right.
     By the end of the 1980s public support for the European Union was so low that the Commission decided that a “social dimension” would have to be added, to dampen criticism and outright opposition; yet by 1994 the UN Information Service could say that “the economic situation of women in Europe is deteriorating.” The EU Commission was also aware that it would be submitting a report on performance on women’s rights to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Beijing in 1995. Committees and programmes multiplied: schemes for training, “mainstreaming,” “frameworks” and “road maps” were introduced; but unemployment and poverty increased, and society was increasingly divided.
     The EU Commission operates by directly appointing experts, and it sets up technical committees to draw up reports. This ensures that only policies it approves of are dealt with. Experts quickly learn to couch their demands within competition and market rules. A striking example of this was persuading the Commission that violence against women has an economic cost—as it causes loss of productivity through absenteeism and sick leave—rather than being an abuse of human rights.
     The Commission has also increasingly resorted to co-opting NGOs and women’s interest groups for the purposes of legitimacy, giving the veneer of consulting the people. These NGOs are either part of the Various Interests Group of the European Economic and Social Committee or part of the European Platform of NGOs. In the first case they are appointed by the member-states and have been shown, in a survey of their memberships lists, not to represent any organisations at all; in the second case they are financially supported by the European Union. They are limited in their independence and must operate within a framework of existing policies. They can be used to dampen alternative political demands, which means that independent political opposition can be ignored. This is not to say that the members of these groups are not sincere; but it has been acknowledged that their power is extremely limited.
     A clear case of NGOs being used for political ends is that of the former socialist countries in central and eastern Europe. Hordes of academics, economists, NGOs and foundations with right-wing funding descended on the women of these countries, who had just lost jobs and public services. This included the EU funding of NGOs and liberal feminist groups to prepare women for the market economy. They insisted that men—not neo-liberal market policies—are the cause of their inequality, and that they should concentrate on their differences with them. These organisations were annoyed when women in these countries resisted this interpretation and preferred to concentrate on unemployment and the dismantling of child care and social services, which they had previously enjoyed. Desperate women realised that one way out of poverty was to use the funding being offered to organise groups and become staff members. To secure funds, these applicants gave as bleak a picture as possible, using the language of neo-liberalism, thus distorting the real situation of women.
     Having succeeded in subverting the women’s movement there, the whole cavalcade departed to other low-cost industrialising countries in order to subvert their political opposition to neo-liberalism, leaving the women’s groups high and dry when funding stopped.
     Since the 1990s the issue of keeping women both in work and caring for families became the focus of EU directives and programmes, because women were finding the combined roles too stressful without ancillary services. This so-called “flexicurity” (introducing fixed-term contracts and agency working) facilitates keeping women as carers, instead of the state providing child care, proper health and recuperation services, and nursing homes. The new buzz-word is “reconciling work with family life.” What seemed like improvements, guaranteeing rights for part-time workers (as advocated by EU women’s committees and women’s organisations), were instead a tool for further entrenching women’s disadvantages—and, as unemployment increases, for making men take up the role also, not because of the human right to have caring work shared but because men working part-time cost less. Part-time and temporary work reduces unemployment statistics. Pushing women and men into these positions reduces existing contractual, full-time paid employment conditions, and rights to pensions and promotions are reduced. The unresolved problem of public child care and caring services means that 77 per cent of part-time EU workers are women.
     Women account for 7½ million of the 12 million jobs created between 2000 and 2008, and these are mostly low-paid services and caring jobs, despite the fact that 59 per cent of graduates are women. There is still a pay gap estimated at an average 17 per cent in the European Union, with some countries having a difference of up to 25 per cent; and women have a higher risk of poverty than men.
     Other initiatives have the same intention: to disguise a continuous attack on workers’ rights, which were established through hard struggle in the twentieth century. The plethora of continuing education schemes attached to employment centres, with false hopes of work that few ever get, also disguise the unemployment figures and silence protest against unemployment. Schemes for women’s entrepreneurship being promoted at the moment lead to false hopes for livelihoods and ignore the fact that fewer businesses are surviving, being pushed out by larger businesses and monopolies. The recent decision to raise the pension age for men and women—instead of reducing it as wealth creation grows—is also an attack on workers.
     Within women’s groups in the European Union, policies promoting women’s rights in the market (to counter years of extra exploitation), such as positive action and mainstreaming, have been either impeded or directly opposed by the controlling forces in the Commission. Many positive proposals were initiated after Sweden and Finland joined the European Union in 1995. Despite opposition from women’s groups in the EU Parliament, from the women in the Commission who drew up the plans, and from the officially recognised European Women’s Lobby, women were removed from leading positions and the policies changed by people who had no experience in the field. On top of that, units and responsibilities were moved, and objectives were restructured to prevent implementation. The Competition Directorate was most vehement in resisting implementation.
     The emphasis on the number of women in the EU Parliament as an indication of the level of women’s equality leaves out the adverse effects of right-wing women in power. The Commission appointed a compliant woman Director of Equal Opportunities. Many women activists believe that prematurely exchanging women’s rights for the broader equal opportunities of EU policies and women’s units will obscure the fact that women suffer from particular oppression, as well as the other discriminations mentioned, and the fact therefore that they still need their own platform.
     Rulings by the European Court of Justice on posted workers, and restrictions on trade union actions, also show that this court only protects big business. In Sweden, for example, midwives made a claim for their wages to be equated with a grade of male medical technicians where comparable skills could be demonstrated. The Swedish Labour Court ruled that, despite equivalence of jobs, account had to be taken of the effect on the market as well as the historical wage level attached to midwifery, thus setting a precedent for refusing other claims. This decision was based on other rulings of the European Court of Justice, as national courts now have to take into account its rulings and opinions.
     Using the market as the deciding factor will not lead to better conditions. The European Court of Justice does not rule on low pay for either sex but only on differences.
     The Amsterdam Treaty in 1999 was hailed as including more social content. This was a response to long-standing criticism, particularly from women, about the absence of a social commitment. In 2000 the Charter of Fundamental Rights was introduced, a watered-down version of the European Social Charter and UN conventions, operating within the principles of a “social market economy,” which immediately puts it within the confines of serving the interests of competition and business. It is only a declaration of principles and contains few rights (such as the right to benefit from social welfare services). It does not include the right of employees to organise in trade unions, the right to take strike action, or the right to receive a fair wage. Housing or health rights are not mentioned. The French thought it did not contain enough social rights, while several other governments thought it had too many. It is still being pushed for ratification within the Lisbon Treaty and in fact is one of its main propaganda tools. Even human rights advocates who are not opponents of the European Union argue that, while there are fine-sounding articles in it, its wording is vague; its enforceability has to be tested in court, which would take years, and the interpretation would depend on the economic and political environment at the time. Even if the Lisbon Treaty is forced through, the move to right-wing governments bodes ill for any progressive outcome.
     A prominent feminist historian, Amy Elman, writing in 2002 about women and the European Union, says: “State and EU action is taken to increase legitimacy much as corporate sponsorship is an investment in future profit. Such acts are not movement actions determined to liberate women—they are marketing tools. The extent to which the public perceives that sexual equality has progressed and credits Europe with this success, the acts are wise investments—whether or not the product is compassion without the effort taken so that it is not needed.”
     Despite all these measures, a feminist survey in 2002 that interviewed 327 equal-opportunities officials from member-states who had been part of the women’s movement before their appointment and who were still active found that they were concerned that efforts on behalf of women were being watered down. In Britain the Equal Opportunities Commission, commenting on the Equal Treatment Directive, said it was only lip service and that there was not the political will to implement it in the European Union. Between 1976 and 1996 only 5 per cent of cases taken by it succeeded.
     Surveys conducted right up to this year show that women are less favourable towards the European Union than men, and consider that it is going in the wrong direction. While some elite women have benefited from participation in EU institutions, the majority working in low-paid and segregated jobs, immigrant women and minority groups of women have certainly not benefited. Reports by immigrant women’s support groups and human rights activists throughout the European Union point to a ruthless system condoned by authority while issuing directives and programmes. It has bowed to the powerful multi-billion sex industry, estimated to be worth at least €7 billion annually, and particularly to demands by Germany and the Netherlands, which promote the idea of “choice” by women prostitutes instead of acknowledging that it is the ultimate form of the commercialisation and abuse of women, and that it is a result of poverty. NGOs have been financed to deal only with trafficking, which they call “forced prostitution,” while doing nothing against its customers. The issue of the trafficking of women within and through Europe began to be taken seriously only when the internal “sex market” operators were threatened financially by organisations already operating from eastern Europe.
     Women in fishing communities and smaller farms have seen their livelihoods destroyed. Great harm is done to countries outside the European Union, where women are particularly affected by adverse competition and by aid that demands the dismantling of public services while trumpeting that its development dealings with these countries insist on equality principles. The EU requirement that public spending be kept within 3 per cent of GDP, and that total state debt not be greater than 60 per cent of GDP, directly affects women’s support services.
     For all its road maps, frameworks, gender units, Daphne programmes, and expert groups, its ECJ cases and directives, the European Union remains an undemocratic process in which globalisation is its stated object; and all the rhetoric cannot hide the fact that the people are being robbed, either directly through wage cuts, unsociable working hours and unemployment or indirectly through privatised services, household charges, and the privatisation of transport, together with increasing inroads into civil liberties. The present economic crisis is a direct result of the political-economic ideology of free-market relations.
     What could have developed instead in the area of rights for women? I believe that the charters of the United Nations (particularly CEDAW), the ILO and the Council of Europe (from all of which the European Union takes its ideas) could have been used more widely, as they have a much broader concept of rights, had it not been for the European Union claiming to be the arbiter of rights while using a much narrower concept of these rights. Noway and Iceland are examples of much better women’s position in all areas. A much more equitable distribution of wealth would eliminate the need for fines and threats.
     What is needed is a mobilisation of women outside the imposed structures of the European Union to fight unemployment and EU laws that subordinate workers’ rights to those of the market, and for the right to organise in trade unions as a fundamental right, as the Nordic countries proposed in the drafting of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (but failed). We need to fight against public-service cuts and privatisation and for free public health and care systems, free clean water, and an adequate housing policy. Violence and the trafficking of women require much stronger legal enforcement. We must continue to demand full-time permanent employment, with shorter hours and proper wages and pensions, to resist the raising of the pension age, and to demand the public child-care services that would make this possible for women and for men. The money is there—it is just in the wrong hands.
     Despite receiving benefits in pay and conditions and in social welfare, in the 1970s and 80s in particular, and despite the fact that the European Union asserts that this could not have happened without it, our judgement of the terrible things that come with that package should not be clouded. These include women being forced into further caring roles, the extra costs of the privatisation of social services, the loss of our fishing stock and rights, the inability of the state to decide how it handles our oil resources, the loss of control of our currency and public spending, and a loss of freedom in foreign policy. The concentration by the European Central Bank on reducing inflation and using only this measure to set financial policy is a cause of further unemployment. Even the United States uses three criteria—investment, employment, and inflation—when making decisions that take into account the social effects of unemployment.

The European Union is an aggressive, militarised imperialist bloc, the largest exporter of armaments in the world, which serves the interests of transnational corporations and monopolies. It obtains its wealth from workers’ increased productivity while impoverishing women. Women, who have traditionally opposed war, must rally to oppose the increasing militarisation of the European Union and also to organise to prevent it grabbing the land, water and mineral resources of other countries. We must think beyond the narrow claims of gains in one area and recognise that they are indirectly removed in another. We need universal, collective political action against the transnational monopolies that are directing EU policies and that are responsible for the disaster now overtaking the planet.

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