TUC Women's Conference 2020

  • 09 Mar 2020

Motions on pay, periods and pregnancy benefits were three of the many issues tackled by women trade unionists.

NUJ delegates with Samira Ahmed and TUC policy officer Sian Elliot

NUJ delegates with Samira Ahmed and TUC policy officer Sian Elliot


Caroline Criado-Perez's book Invisible Women mined data and statistics to show that women are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed when having a heart attack or be seriously hurt in a car accident because standards in health and design are based on the male body or built by men.

Smart phones are too big for women's hands and voice-recognition systems more likely to respond to a male voice. Office air conditioning systems were based on men's metabolic rate, leaving women to freeze at their desks.

Likewise, the world of work is a man-sized space, delegates at the TUC's Women's conference reported. One motion, from the College of Podiatry, noted that protective footwear, such as steel-capped boots, were not designed properly for women.

Delegates passed motions which called for greater awareness among employers of the effects of the menopause which may affect half the population at some point in their life and endometriosis which afflicts one in 10 women. Employers need better training to understand these issues and put in place adjustments to help women.

Many workplaces do not provide proper facilities to dispose of sanitary products – or as one delegate said: "Let's call them period pads, we're not insanitary."

Women working on ships must include them in the regulation luggage they are allowed to take on board and then must manage their disposal at ports. Access to lavatories can also be a problem for women. Conference heard from a bus driver who dreaded being caught short on her route, while others in call centres are penalised if they spend too long in the toilet.

A survey by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) found almost one in eight had no access to sanity products at work, more than half (56 per cent) did not have adequate time for toilet breaks, a third said the toilets were not properly cleaned and five per cent said they had no toilet facilities at work.

The many years of lobbying by women trade unionists and activists appeared to have paid off with Chancellor Rishi Sunak expected to scrap the 5 per cent VAT on sanitary products, the so-called tampon tax, saving the average woman £40 over her lifetime. Reports said the tax will be abolished when the transition period for leaving the EU ends in December 2020.

It was the first TUC's Women's Conference since the election and Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary,  used her speech to have a pop at the new Prime Minister:

"We now have Boris Johnson in Number 10 – a womaniser and philanderer with a taste for all expenses paid holidays in exotic places. Someone who, for all his expensive education, apparently still can't count how many children he has."

She said it was 50 years since equal pay legislation was passed, but there was plenty more work to do. "Today is Equal Pay Day," she said.

"The day in the year when women effectively stop working for free and start earning. That's a massive 64 days of free labour – and more if you work in education, health or finance, or you're older, and depending on where you live."

BBC presenter, Samira Ahmed, was the keynote speaker. She told the conference how the NUJ won her case when she found a male colleague was paid six times more than her for doing the same job. She was fulsome in her praise of the NUJ, which supported her case, and the solidarity offered by colleagues and trade unionists. Delegates gave her a standing ovation.

The NUJ was represented by Natasha Hirst, Magda Ibrahim, Ann Galpin and Ann Coltart, who took part in many of the debates. Magda brought her experience as a journalist to bear in a motion about girls and knife crime.

Seconding an Equity motion, she said:

"I work as a night reporter and one of the first jobs I was sent on for my current newspaper was the stabbing of a young teenage girl. The saddest thing about her horrific death was that she had been fatally stabbed through the heart after falling onto a knife she was carrying in her own handbag. This poor 17-year-old's brother told me she was carrying the knife as protection."

The motion made the link between the increase in knife crime and government austerity measures that cut youth services; it said access to the arts could play a powerful role in improving social mobility for young women, "lifting them out of poverty and insecure violent family life".

Natasha Hirst spoke to a motion about online harassment of women which said that "gendered abuse and threats have become widespread and a part of everyday life". She explained that having a profile on social media was part of the job for many journalists and essential for freelances to promote themselves and their work, but this is coming at a cost for women.

She said:

"Research conducted by the International Press Institute shows that attacks targeting women journalists are more frequent, more vicious and adopt highly sexualised language. This had clear implications for the online safety of women journalists who become subject to hundreds of misogynistic comments, rape and death threats which inevitably cause stress and have an impact on their mental health. These attacks are designed to silence the woman's voice."

This had a direct effect on press freedom, she pointed out. Women were withdrawing from social media platforms and not taking part in what should be a diverse media. Indeed, Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to vile online abuse for having the temerity to propose Jane Austin's image for use on the new £10 note; two people were convicted after sending her rape threats and telling her to kill herself.

Magda Ibrahim seconded Millicent Stephenson, of the Musicians' Union, on a motion about the lack of pregnancy and parental benefits for freelances, which called on the TUC to lobby the government to extend shared parental pay to self-employed workers. 

She said:

"Like many others in the creative industries, the NUJ has a huge number of self-employed or casual workers. The National Council for the Training of Journalists reported that 36 per cent of all journalists are now freelance. This matters a lot because there are huge inequalities in the way the system is currently set up to deal with pregnancy and parenthood.
"There are two maternity systems. Statutory maternity pay for employed workers allows mums to claim 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings for the first six weeks, followed by £148.68 a week for another 33 weeks. Maternity allowance – which is for the self-employed – allows for a maximum £148.68 a week from day one."

She also raised the issue of women going through in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

"There is no statutory time off for IVF appointments for any women, so they depend on their employer's individual policies – if they have one. With 75,000 IVF cycles taking place in the UK each year, surely that's something that needs to be addressed?"

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