The cost of living crisis dominated the first day of this year’s national women’s conference, with delegates from all sectors sharing their experiences of how soaring inflation, huge hikes in energy bills and falling incomes are impacting on their members’ lives.
With women holding 69% of low-paid and insecure jobs, the worry and sacrifices being experienced are widespread and disproportionate.
“The cost of living crisis is really a low pay crisis. Incomes are insufficient to live on,” said Annette Heslop (pictured above), of the national women’s committee. “Women are usually over-represented in part-time roles, but now they are having to take on more hours to survive. This has huge implications for relationships, mental health and leisure time, as caring responsibilities fall largely on their shoulders too.”
Mary Revell, from UNISON Northern Ireland (pictured above), added: “Across the UK, households of all shapes and sizes are being destroyed by rising living costs. Its impact on women and their families is clear – rising prices are eating into incomes and reducing families’ ability to spend. While richer families saved money during the pandemic, the poorest have fallen further into debt and have no cushion to cope with rising prices.”
There are three times more women in part-time work than men, and a fifth of women are paid below the real living wage, conference heard. As a result, they are having to prioritise their immediate financial commitments – like mortgages, rent and utility bills – over long-term goals like pension savings, which will lead to greater poverty in old age.
“The impact of the cost of living crisis will be felt for years to come as it is exacerbating the existing outcomes of entrenched gender inequality,” said Pat Heron, of Northern region.
As the “shock-absorbers” for austerity and the cost of living crisis, women are going without food, heating and clothing to provide for their families and loved ones. Families are being forced to make increasingly desperate decisions.
Single parents, most of whom are women, are particularly badly hit. Reliance upon food banks has risen dramatically, with a third experiencing financial difficulty and 11% in problem debt.
“We are aware from our members of stories of women skipping meals, going without, turning off their heating, sitting in the dark because the electricity meter is empty, making their own sanitary products – because they simply cannot afford to get by. These experiences only scratch the surface of what the cost of living crisis is doing to women and their families,” said Ms Hislop.
Recent research by the TUC highlighted that even prior to COVID-19, over a third of disabled workers were living in such extreme poverty that they were having to cut back on food and heating to survive. The cost of living crisis has made a bad situation even worse.
And a report by the Leonard Cheshire charity, in April 2022, said that over half a million disabled people were living off just £10 a week after bills. And this was before the cost of living crisis.
A member of the national disabled members committee said that having a disability can cost an additional £1,000 a month in utility bills and adaptations.
“Women with health conditions like arthritis require heating on to avoid pain,” she said. “Also many disabled women rely upon life-saving equipment like electric wheelchairs, mobility equipment and oxygen machines. These costs are not feasible now, but their use cannot be cut back on. For some now, it is not a choice between eating and heating, but upon breathing itself.”
Speaking passionately to a packed conference, Pat Heron of Northern region described how she cannot afford to retire due to the cost of living crisis.
“As a single householder, I am coming up to an age when, to be honest, I could have retired. But I’ve had to wait. I’ve been pushed into poverty through my pension. Now I’m standing here in poverty and I have the cheek of a Tory government telling me to go and work extra hours to make ends meet.
“Well, I work as hard as I damn well can, like the rest of the women here today. We have to stand together. We have to fight. We have to make our voices heard. It’s no wonder we’ve seen women take to the picket line.”
One in three women report domestic abuse at some time in their lives and there was a sharp increase in reported cases during the pandemic. Restricting access to money in a cost of living crisis makes it even harder for women to leave abusive partners.
“At the moment, there is even less certainty about how survivors of domestic abuse will be able to support themselves and their children,” said Lynn Marie O’Hara, of Scotland region. “No one should be suffering domestic abuse and yet, at the moment, women are experiencing domestic abuse in every possible way.”
The current basic rate for statutory maternity and parental pay equates to just 47% of the national living wage, conference heard. At a time when women need their income to keep up with the costs of a new baby, women are getting penalised and finding themselves in financial difficulty.
According to a survey carried out by Maternity Action, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they worried a lot about money when experiencing a sharp drop in income while they were pregnant or on maternity leave.
But with an absence of affordable childcare, many women are caught between a rock and a hard place. Unable to pay childcare costs, they cannot increase their hours of work to raise their income.
Fiona Turnball of Tees Esk and Wears Valleys Health branch (pictured above) told delegates: “The failure to increase maternity pay to keep up with inflation not only causes financial hardship, but is also driving more and more pregnant women and new mothers in to poverty.”
Young women are more vulnerable to high living costs, as they spend a higher proportion of their income on household goods, which are susceptible to “inflation-induced volatility”.
Sarah Walsh from the young members’ forum argued that, “This is not a crisis, it’s intentional imposed poverty. We are currently closer to Victorian times than we ever thought possible as a women’s movement.
“I’ve had my heating on three times since the autumn, because I can’t afford to turn on my storage heaters. I live in a rubbish, terraced house where my landlord won’t fit decent heating. This is the level of insecurity that young people are living with. We don’t have homes of our own that we can insulate nicely and that have good quality heating systems. We can’t afford a house deposit.”
In addition, young workers are more likely to be on short-term, zero-hour contracts.
Research by the Women’s Budget Group in March last year showed that poverty rates are significantly higher amongst Black, Asian and ethnic minority groups. Black women are more likely to earn less and have high levels of concern about debt. Around 43% of Black women said they believed they would be more in debt since the pandemic, compared with 37% of white women.
“My mum used to talk about “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, but Black workers can no longer even do this. The pot is empty,” said Paulette White, of Gateshead Health branch.
A wide range of motions were passed to tackle cost of living issues. These included calls to:
- campaign for minimum pay rates of £15 an hour across the UK and to restore the £20 cut to universal credit;
- call for an abolition of the benefits cap and the two child limit;
- promote UNISON’s disability employment charter as a way of improving disabled women’s income through better access to reasonable adjustments at work, Access to Work support and by supporting disabled women into good quality employment.
- campaign for an emergency domestic abuse fund to be set up to help support survivors of domestic abuse to pay for essential items and energy bills;
- campaign for good quality, affordable childcare for all children, properly paid parental leave for all parents and all jobs to be flexible by default;
- lobby the UK governments to take substantial action on tackling the gender pay gap;
- work with regional women’s groups and service groups to build a body of evidence that illustrates the impact the cost of living crisis is having on women.