Gender Equality and the Crisis in the European Union
Published on 22/11/2017
The global economy has been in trouble since 2007. Some authors have referred to this on-going crisis as the “Great Recession”, not only because so many parts of the world are affected, but also because of the unprecedented duration and depth of the downturn. The austerity policy within the European Union during the economic and financial crisis has marked a fundamental shift regarding EU´s basic policy considerations for gender equality and collective bargaining. In case of gender equality, the shift has not been explicit, but rather emerged as an indirect result of a seemingly gender neutral approach to the economic problems. The situation is rather different regarding collective bargaining, where the starting point for the austerity policy has been that institutions and mechanisms for sectoral collective bargaining constitute obstacles to necessary structural reforms. Several crisis measures have been found to violate basic international human rights instruments (adopted within ILO, UN and the European Council), while Member States to the European Union are still bound by their international human rights obligations when implementing those measures. There are also reasons to expect that the EU institutions which are parties to the Troika should respect these obligations when designing crisis measures for individual Member States.

During the initial phase of the crisis, there was a strong perception that the crisis was severely impacting male-dominated branches such as manufacturing, construction and some parts of the financial sector. This perception was valid only for the initial phase of the crisis, but it was persistent among policymakers for several years. Very soon, the crisis was also felt in the female service and retail  sectors, and furthermore, the cutbacks were focused on female-dominated sectors, such as education, health and social work. Therefore, female unemployment soon increased more than male unemployment, although it is known that female unemployment partly remained undocumented and unregistered.

Cutbacks in public care and health services have led to the reprivatisation of care and a return to traditional gender roles. Limited availability of childcare, growing childcare fees, reduced services for the elderly and the disabled, and even closed hospitals transfer the responsibility for care from society to households, i.e. mostly women. At the same time, governments did save on instruments that encourage the equal division of care between women and men, such as paid paternity leave. Cutbacks in services and benefits have compromised women´s economic independence, as benefits often constitute an important source of their income, and as they use public services more than men. We can state that, in reality, single mothers and retired female persons living on their own have  enerally faced the most substantial cumulative economic losses as a consequence of the austerity policies.

The current recession, together with austerity policies, have deeply hit the labour market in the crisis countries and have increased unemployment, inequality and poverty. Ten years of crisis and gender-blind political responses have, in some countries, led to a downward convergence in gender gaps in employment and unemployment, although this is not because of better conditions for women, but because of a worse situation for men. As researchers from southern Europe have pointed out, women still continue to be worse off as regards the main indicators of the labour market. The effects of unemployment and policy adjustments, including on their welfare systems, have raised poverty rates. 

The austerity policy and measures in the crisis countries have led to massive human rights violations and to tacit policy changes contrary to those forming part of the EU Treaty obligations. In spite of European guidance on gender mainstreaming and the explicit requirement under the Lisbon Treaty (TFEU Art. 8), anti-crisis measures regarding policy and legislation, as well as fiscal consolidation, were planned and implemented with the absence of an integrated gender dimension, and even more, with an absence of a social dimension. In spite of the similarities between these areas, there are also important differences. It seems that the gender blindness was less the result of a clear intentional policy, and more the disastrous consequence of a formally gender-neutral and gender-blind  policy. The radical changes in public-sector spending have had a negative impact upon women in several ways. Public-sector workers are predominantly female, and they were subject to pay freezes, job cuts and reduced pension entitlements. Women also use public services more intensely than men to meet their own needs and to help manage care responsibilities, and they are often dependent on benefits that were significantly reduced during the crisis.

The common feature of these policies is that they build on a policy approach that is entirely and exclusively based on economic considerations. During the time of the Open Method of Co-ordination for employment policy, there was still an effort in place to integrate social aspects, as well as equality and gender policy aspects into economic policies. The austerity marked a shift towards the exclusive relevance of economic considerations. The results of these exercises give a clear indication that this approach is not sustainable. The dismantling of collective bargaining and the  weakening of trade unions form part of a policy that follows the ideological pattern which was previously outlined by Ms. Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 80s, and which has had new proponents within the European Union following the enlargement, although, until now, there has been no general support for a shift in policy.

This new policy implies that Europe is abandoning the post-Second World War heritage, in which the fight for social justice, and against poverty and exclusion, was seen as a key cornerstone for sustainable peace. Collective bargaining was, at that time, regarded as an efficient and democratic method of wage setting. It also indicates that the vision of the architect for a Social Europe, Mr. Delors, who outlined the building blocks for the social dimension of the EU, is seriously endangered.

Today, the European Union seems to be at a crossroads when it comes to social rights. One option is to return to and restore respect for the basic Treaty provisions, and for human rights,  international conventions and principles of legality. This includes a respect for social rights, including free collective bargaining and the principles of equality and non-discrimination. The other option is to openly abandon social rights as a part of the European project and to focus on establishing an economic neoliberal internal market. Furthermore, the fragmentation of the European Union into a two-speed Europe, with the “Eurozone” and its own problems with democracy and accountability, on the one hand, and the heterogenous outsiders group, on the other, is not a very good base for the resocialisation of Europe. Only one thing is clear: There is no easy way forward. It is, however, important for us to be aware of what is going on and what is at stake.