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Upstairs downstairs economy

Frances O'Grady finds official statistics massively understate jobless figures with women hit hardest by austerity measures

I

n a Budget Statement of more than eight thousand words, George Osborne managed just one mention of unemployment. He said that unemployment forecasts remain unchanged. This will offer little comfort to the growing number who fear losing their jobs or to those now locked into long-term unemployment. The picture is even worse than the Chancellor would have us believe.

Unemployment is now at its highest level in 17 years and heading towards three million. Once you factor in discouraged, marginally attached and those workers, especially women, forced into part-time hours but who want full-time jobs, TUC research suggests the real figure could already be over 6 million.

It's women's jobs that are disappearing fastest. According to official figures, there are now over 1.1 million women who are unemployed, higher than at any point in the last quarter of a century. Among those hardest hit are women approaching retirement, and women in regions clobbered most by the government's austerity programme, such as the North East.

Much of the blame can be laid squarely at the Tory-led government's door. Its decision to slash over £80bn from public spending has not only decimated people's services and benefits, it has also led to a massive jobs cull in our schools, hospitals and councils, as well as sucking spending power out of the private sector. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, by the end of this parliament the cuts will see 710,000 jobs lost across our public services with little evidence that the much promised private sector jobs revival will make up the difference. So with women accounting for two-thirds of the public sector workforce, they are paying the heaviest price.

The pain doesn't stop there. From cuts to maternity services, Sure Start and adult social care, closures of refuges for the victims of domestic violence, changes to the state pension that hurt half a million women, public transport cuts, merciless reductions in legal aid and threats to hard-won abortion rights, the evidence is clear: this is the most female-unfriendly administration in living memory.

It's hardly surprising that opinion polls show women aren't exactly awash with enthusiasm for the coalition government. Number 10's response to the realities of ordinary women's lives has been pathetic. The Prime Minister has said a few warm words about getting women onto boards and company remuneration committees to help determine top pay unless, that is, the women concerned are workers, in which case the boardroom door is firmly locked. There is one proposal being floated to help women return to work - tax breaks for people who employ cleaners and servants. A return to an Upstairs Downstairs economy is perhaps not what most of us had in mind for our daughters' futures.

The recent Budget underlined just how skewed the government's real priorities are. The Chancellor announced that welfare spending will be slashed by a further £10bn, with women the main losers. And his decision to cut the 50p top rate of tax in effect rewarding the super-rich for their tax dodging skills will give the richest 1% a huge boost in their incomes. Remember, these are people who already receive more in tax relief than the typical woman in the private sector earns in a year.

Unions are taking the message that there is an alternative into communities, as well as workplaces. First, we are setting out a credible, compelling economic programme to answer the self-defeating madness of austerity. That's why the TUC has been campaigning for a Plan B based on growth, jobs and tax justice: keeping the economy moving, keeping people in work, keeping tax revenues flowing with the super-rich forced to cough up their fair share.

Second, we are campaigning for a proper strategy to get Britain back to work. Reversing the cuts will stop hundreds of thousands of women in the public sector from losing their jobs, but we also need to resurrect schemes like the Future Jobs Fund that under the Labour government provided young people with a real alternative to the exploitation of so-called work experience schemes and unpaid internships by providing decent jobs and training, paid at least the minimum wage.

And third, while the government is intent on shrinking the state and services as an article of right wing faith, unions will not stand by and let them. While Conservative and LibDem ministers triumphantly banged the table at a cabinet meeting to mark the impending passing of NHS marketisation into law, they must have forgotten that the Poll Tax reached the statute book too but that was just the beginning of a long campaign that ultimately led to the policy being abandoned.

Finally, we need to get organised. The TUC is building a massive coalition against the cuts bringing together unions, charities, women's groups, community organisations and the millions of ordinary people who believe in a better future for Britain. As we saw in our huge mobilisations on 26th March and 30th November last year, it's a movement that women now share in leading. I would urge everyone who supports our values to get involved and get active.