Next Organising Meetings:
NORTH: 31st of January to talk about prepaid benefits cards (and common ground for asylum seekers and claimants). In Sheffield from 2-4, at St Mary's Conference Centre // 1st Feb from 2-4 in Sheffield at Costa Coffee, Pinstone Street.
LONDON: Our next London steering meeting is on Sunday 15 February, 4-6pm at the Common House Unit 5E (press the buzzer) 5 Pundersons Gardens, Bethnal Green London E2 9QG. All self defining women welcome.
There will be a presentation on workplace organizing, followed by an organizing meeting.
Our next screening will be on the 13th of February, 7pm. at the Common House Unit 5E (press the buzzer) 5 Pundersons Gardens, Bethnal Green London E2 9QG. All genders welcome.
anti valentine special
All self-defining women welcome, this includes trans*women and intersex women.
Please contact us if you need childcare. We can either fund it or arrange for you to bring along any small people to the meeting. Also, if you have any other access issues please get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
The text below has come out of various discussions in London, Berlin and Delhi about a text by Maya John (hereafter referred to as MJ), ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: A Marxist Understanding of Rape’. We also met her and her co-author, both members of a neo-Maoist youth group ‘Revolutionary Youth Organisation’ (KYS), which is a public youth organisation of a faction of the Communist League of India (CLI). They believe in a ‘communist’ party leading the working class. They have a Marxist-Leninist understanding of class (which will be explained more in the paper) and a formal assumption of ‘class unity’ at all costs. They see the struggle around hierarchies within the working class (for example around gender or sexuality) as a threat to the ‘class unity’, which they suppose to be necessary to overcome capitalism, while we think that this class unity can only come out of a process of tackling inner-class hierarchies and privileges during struggle itself.
She thinks feminism (as a separable and homogenous movement) undermines the class struggle rather than seeing it as, amongst other things, a response to the failings of the formal labour and social movements of the time, as it was during the seventies in Europe. Working class movements were failing to meet and reflect the needs of women entering the labour force or engaging with their various roles within the capitalist mode of production. In India, feminists were agitating against the role of the state in perpetrating and facilitating violence against women, which was also being ignored by the larger left.
While we hope that this paper reflects an appreciation of her attempt at a historical materialist analysis of gender relations leading to situations where sexual violence arises, the main disagreements are with her readings of the history of the feminist movement and different understandings of what class struggle is and should involve. We also question the link between rape and a sexual crisis of working class men.
Another important point to note that came up after this paper was finished was the statistics around rape in Delhi. We couldn’t actually find any reliable data to show that a) rapes were increasingly perpetrated by working class men; b) that stranger rapes were actually increasing, let alone that they were being committed by working class men c) that the number of rapes in general are increasing, only that women are starting to report them more. Of these, most are reported by higher income women. This obviously throws quite a big question mark on the central tenet of MJ’s thesis, namely that there is an increase in rapes committed by working class men in urban areas. Nevertheless, we still maintain a political position that material conditions are important to analyse because they undoubtedly affect the type of sex people engage in, as well as obviously, all other aspects of their lives.
Comments and further discussions on the text welcome!
For full list of texts in this debate go to www.angryworkersworld.wordpress.com
*Why sexual violence?
How can we theorise sexual violence in a way that doesn’t just fall back on gender ideology and an independent system of patriarchy? We need to analyse the material bases of sexual violence in order to develop organisational responses that tackle the root of the problem, rather than just its effects. We think violence against women is definitely under theorised amongst the left (including socialist feminists), which leaves it open to right wingers who call for the death penalty for perpetrators, those who lazily blame ‘lumpen’ elements, and those who respond by calling for more state surveillance and control.
We think this focus on violence is also a fruitful, if challenging way into thinking about broader questions about how we analyse class and gender together, as a dynamic and stubbornly re-constituting set of social relations.
*Men and Women, Sex and Power, Social conditions
We will not attempt to summarise the main points of the debate held amongst the media, politicians, mainstream left, revolutionary left and feminists after the horrific attack on a young student on a bus by 6 men in Delhi late last year. Instead we focus on the essays written by Maya John that were published in the aftermath because we think they seemed the most engaging and provocative in terms of challenging long-standing feminist assertions about the nature of violence against women, namely that violence cuts equally across boundaries of class, race, and even history, which in turn supports the idea that violence against women is primarily based on the exertion and dominance of men over women. A lot of much-needed work was done by (mainly radical) feminists into this in the 70s and 80s, and as a result, it was generally accepted that attempts to distinguish between different types of violence against women amongst different groups of people would not see the bigger picture i.e. a system of patriarchy. It would also have legitimised a right wing agenda that saw the ‘lower’ classes and non-white groups as more backwards, less civilised, sexually predatory and prone to violence and criminality. A focus on the conditions that gave rise to violence against women was also seen as justifying or sympathising with the perpetrators.
MJ challenges this cardinal principle by differentiating between urban and rural rapes in order to highlight the social and material conditions that produce people who are vulnerable to rape and sexual violence and those who perpetrate it. She says that rural rapes in the Indian context are mainly committed against lower caste Dalit women by upper caste men. Caste power allows this situation to happen with impunity, which is supported by a state structure and institutions such as the police and army engaged in state ‘protection’ and civil warfare. She understands these kinds of rapes as different in terms of the forces of power and social situation to urban rapes, where caste is not so much of an issue as everyone is more anonymous and instead, working class men, with little social power, are the main perpetrators. Her point is that rape can’t then just be about power (another foundational feminist principle that described rape from the point of view of the victim) because urban working class men have so little of it within a capitalist system of exploitation.
She then brings in a sexual crisis (of working class men) who are hyper-exploited, work long hours, are bombarded with sexual images and live in social conditions where there is no time or opportunities to fulfil their sexual desires. This provides fertile ground, especially in a society where women already have less social and material power, in which more cases of sexual violence occur. She wants to highlight the sexual frustration element on the part of the perpetrator as part of the motivation for rape, alongside power – without this, she thinks a proper analysis, and therefore strategy of response, will be lacking. Such an inclusion also opens the door to discuss what kind of sex and relationships we actually want as part of what we are fighting for in the class struggle. The sexual component within rape has, to some extent, been confirmed in other studies e.g. interviews with rapists in South Africa highlighted the sexual component as one of the motivations for rape, alongside feelings of anger.
We agree with this approach to a certain extent. We think the sexual crisis within capitalism is an important aspect to consider, especially within the framework of the different trajectories of male and female sexuality throughout different historical periods, modes of production and social relations. To not consider the prevalent social conditions, in South Africa or the US for example, places, which record some of the highest rates of rape in the world, would be a rather obvious blind spot. MJ throws a similar spotlight on Delhi.
However, we are worried about the implications of explicitly linking incidences of rape with a ‘sexual crisis within capitalism’. Firstly because it focuses on the sexual frustrations of men as if their need for sex is greater and more uncontrollable than women’s, rather than focusing on the fact that they have the power (social space, little chance of facing any consequences, their status as men) to exercise means to meet that need – means that women do not have, even though they are equally, if not more, sexually frustrated. We would rather term it a social crisis that impacts upon sex. This would then more explicitly point to the social conditions that influence the type of sex men and women both have (casual, alienated, quick, none at all, forced etc.)
There have been cases throughout history where there has been a spike in sexual violence against women. One such case was at the end of the 15th century in Western Europe, where a counter revolution took place in response to a high level of workers wages and standard of living, together with a drastic reduction in the difference between men and women’s wages after the Black Death, which drastically reduced the numbers of workers, thus increasing their bargaining power with landowners. Authorities attempted to co-opt the most rebellious male workers by giving them free access to sex, as, according to Federici, they effectively decriminalised rape of lower class women. Gang rapes became commonplace, took place openly and loudly. Historians have analysed this as a form of class protest, a means by which proletarian men could take out their anger on the rich and get back “their own”. This was in the context of having to postpone marriage for several years because of the economic conditions (similar to the situation of many working class men in Delhi). The social disturbance was a small price to pay for the authorities who turned working class men against working class women and saw it as a release of social tensions to guard against insurrections. We think existing social tensions towards the end of feudalism could be exploited by the authorities, made easier by the brutal conditions of war and decomposition of former communal structures.
Similarly the Indian state (as well as most states in general) ‘sanction’ rape (e.g. in terms of impunity for institutions like the police and army to commit rapes and a judicial system that models itself under an illusion of neutrality), at the same time that it reinforces capitalist social relations and male privilege within that as a necessary instrument of class rule and division. We would not call this a ‘sexual crisis of working class men’ particularly (even though sexual frustration may be a motivation), rather a society where the majority of working class people (of all genders) are under enormous material pressures, which then impacts upon their sexual relations.
Migration to the city, living in shared, cramped rooms, long work hours and repressive gendered norms all create a lack of opportunity for both women and men to have sex. But linking sexual frustration to an increase in rapes by working class men misses the step in-between – the thing that actually makes someone cross the line into rape. Namely, that men can act on their sexual frustration. This is not to say that men rape because they want dominance over women, rather that they rape because , as well as the reasons that MJ points out such as the social/sexual division of labour, women’s economic dependence on men within the family, urban anonymity, hostility and alienation as a result of migration and yes, the lack of sex , another important factor is the collective masculine environment (by which we mean in a gendered sense as so something socially created, not something natural or inherent), which provides a space in which such behaviour can be acted out with relative impunity. This is because it is within the norms of masculine behaviour (men act out by grabbing sex or being violent). The urban environment is a space where larger groups of men can congregate and where, in Delhi especially, the public spaces are dominated by men. This environment of ‘men together’ provides an opportunity to perform certain ‘masculine’ behaviours. We don’t think this is primarily to do with being bombarded with sexual images, as MJ says. After all, there are no huge billboards with half naked women in working class areas in Delhi. Nor do many working class men have TVs or access to pornography on the internet. We think that, as in previous historical periods where towns became cities, the urban space itself offers more opportunity to have sex because of the fact that more women are generally around (not more in a quantitative sense but more so than the village), compounded by the existence of these collective masculine spaces where desire can be more easily expressed and bought.
Urban spaces opening up sexual possibilities is a good thing. The problem comes when this cannot be realised because men and women cannot become friends and socialise together and sex outside marriage is socially unacceptable, for women especially. But linking rape to this sexual crisis is misleading because men can alleviate their sexual crisis somewhat by going out and buying sex. It is not the sexual (frustration) element that therefore should be emphasised in rape, (although it may be a motivation), but the (structurally enforced and reproduced) social power to be able to enact it. (We think that ‘power’ in the sense that MJ uses it, defined as male power over women, is a limited description, which we are broadening out here.) This social power has not yet been adequately challenged by women because of their more pronounced secondary role in capitalist production and lack of larger, more collective forms of organisation.
*Questions of strategy and what constitutes ‘class struggle’
Although working class men are exploited by capital, they have certain power over women in given situations: generally always against their wives and daughters and additionally over ‘middle class’ women when these women are in more vulnerable/exposed situations. Whilst acknowledging the material differences that create power imbalances in men’s favour within the working class home that make women more vulnerable to violence, MJ advocates for a strategy of response that is not about challenging personal relationships with men in the home or working class men in general, but rather ‘outwards’ against capitalism. And to effectively overturn capitalism, she argues that you need a ‘class unity’ that does not pit (working class) women against working class men. Here we would like to make two points.
Firstly, as we said, working class men wield and accept some power over their wives and daughters, power which has been passed on by capital and state in the form of the wage and certain laws. As long as social relations are not questioned at large, men seek to maintain the benefit they get from an uneven distribution of (domestic) labour and social privileges, within a broader system of capitalist exploitation. And secondly, we think that the existing material divisions within the working class have to be overcome within and as part of class struggle in order to pose a revolutionary threat to capitalism as a whole. While we would agree that the state and capital uses the gender distinction and the separation of spheres to keep the working class divided, the answer is not to advocate for a ‘class unity’ that ignores the very real material differences between working class men and women. These include: working class women’s increased role in childrearing and household work so that they are seen as a ‘burden’ that need to be supported by a single male wage; normalised and pathologised gender roles that justify women’s ‘low skilled’ jobs and subsequent worse pay; the fact that they are cheaper ‘competitors’ on the job market, undercutting working class men’s pay etc. Struggles against this are part and parcel of challenging the social divisions of labour which makes a capitalist mode of production capitalist: the division of mental and manual labour, of town and countryside and, last but not least, the division of domestic/private and ‘productive’/public labour.
These ‘internal’ working class struggles threaten a rhetorical ‘class unity’, which is what MJ espouses, coming as she does from a Marxist-Leninist tradition that promotes such a concept. Papering over the very real material differences between different segments of the working class, which capital has created and continues to create, will not ultimately make the working class stronger. It actually tends to limit the numbers involved in struggle as people recognise that they won’t actually benefit from participating in a particular struggle. Historically, with proletarianisation, there was a similar emergence of inner-class conflicts concerning lower-caste workers in India or Afro-American workers in the US; not all struggles against casteism or racism within the working class can be termed ‘identitarian’. We think there should be space within the working class and its’ organisations to defend the space of ‘struggle within class struggle’ to develop a full critique of class and gender, while at the same time trace all possible lines of power which stretch from the (female) collective space of the immediate production process to the household. From there, female proletarians have to challenge gender hierarchies in struggle here and now.
*Every class having its own women’s question
Following on from this Marxist- Leninist understanding of class unity, underlying MJ’s work is the assumption that ‘each class has its own women question’ and that there is no structural relation between the gender relations within different classes – something that Clara Zetkin also said in 1896. As well as using this to explain why there can never be any real cross-class alliance between women based on a shared experience (and therefore the ultimate redundancy of the feminist movement), she also uses this to explain why any struggle against women’s oppression must be led by working class women, because middle class women, who currently lead the mainstream feminist (mainly) academic, will never dismantle capitalism as the root of all oppressions as they have conflicting collective and material interests to the working class. We would agree that working class women will be the force that is able to ultimately realise this. However, not for all the same reasons.
*How is ‘class’ defined?
Firstly we would question MJ’s definition of class. MJ would define class as those with a collective interest in destroying capitalism because they produce more value than they get in return for their subsistence. It fails to see how different sections of the working class are actually composed, in other words, how they are situated at different points in the social production process and what this means in terms of differing interests, experiences and needs. We think that these have to be addressed directly as part of the revolutionary process by which the working class are brought together, rather than just through an externally imposed ‘political education’ that tells us we all ultimately have the same interests.
According to MJ, struggles within the working class (such as struggles between working class me and women) or feminism (which is seen as a homogenous whole rather than being made up of many differing strands) undermines class struggle because it seeks to divide rather than unify. These ‘separated struggles’ are seen as a distraction from the ‘politics’ of overthrowing capitalism. The idea that women across classes can have some level of common experience (e.g. if they are raped or experience sexual violence) or structural commonality and that this then could lead to some front of common struggle (feminism) complicates MJ’s concept of class and collectivity and what the process of revolutionary struggle involves.
*Class determining your concerns
To further undermine feminist struggle as part of class struggle, MJ states that middle class women are overly concerned with ‘sexist behaviour’ and ‘personal/individualised’ issues and working class women are more concerned about more relevant issues like wages, work conditions, food prices etc. This is historically inaccurate. During the struggles in the 1960s and 1970s in Western Europe and the US, proletarian women raised the issues of housing, rent, food prices, (sexual and reproductive) health issues. During these struggles, a lot of seemingly ‘private issues’ became collective and political. How does our husband or comrade act once we are at home or in bed? How do we see ourselves, our sexuality? What kind of gender hierarchies exist within the struggle and its’ political organizations? Who talks and how? The discoveries that these gender hierarchies are not private issues led to a ‘scientific’ analysis of the history of gender relations in capitalism and pre-capitalist periods. These were blind spots within the class struggle and communist movement and the struggle over these hierarchies and blind-spots has to be fought out in order to come to a communist position. While ‘middle-class feminism’ tends to detach the gender questions from the collectivity of proletarian struggle from which they arose, we see that MJ’s position runs the danger of doing the opposite: sweeping back under the carpet the potentially conflictual and embarrassing politicisation of gender-based hierarchies within the working class and working class organisations and detaching them from the struggle around seemingly more class-based ‘issues’ (employment, reproductive consumption) from which they emerged.
In summary, this distinction of what is ‘class based’ can only be made if you see ‘class’ mainly as everyone who receives only the value of their reproduction costs, rather than as composed through their position in the social production process. Here the question arises of how to define ‘working class women’. Does it include, as MJ thinks, housewives, who mainly depend on their husbands’ wages and good will? This would not acknowledge their dependency on the male wage and subsequent different positions within the social production process. To assume that they automatically have a common interest displays a rather idyllic picture of a familial/marriage bond. Does their understanding of working class include home-based female wage workers who earn independently, but have little collective social interaction? Or rather, are they waged workers who work ‘outside’, who can actually experience ‘being part of a class’, but who still receive less of the ‘common’ household wage and still do more additional domestic labour than their ‘male class husbands?’
If these sorts of internal divisions sketched out above are not overcome as part of the class struggle, then a ‘formal unity’ as such would always require an external force which holds the class together, which in the end will require a state apparatus developing separate interests from the class it claims to represent. Revolution is thus seen as a process where, through the capturing of state power, the social produce is evenly distributed. We would rather say that the precondition of ‘abolishing power’ of state and capital is a revolutionary process of getting rid of division-of-labour-based hierarchies within the class during the struggle itself. The communist revolution has to develop alternatives to nuclear family-based reproduction as part of struggle’s organisation.
One reason that mainstream feminist struggles have been led by the smaller number of largely academic, middle class women in India could be because the numbers of women that we think can be deemed working class subjects in their own right (i.e. wage earners who are able to build class collectivity outside of the isolation of the home) are only now increasing to the extent where social spaces are opening up, making it easier for them to speak out and organise on a mass scale. But it is not a quantitative problem as such (there are obviously more women waged workers than women academics, even in India). Rather it may be more the case that middle-class women who first enter a labour market, be it in middle-class positions, are more able to express discontent of gender oppression (obviously from a position of higher income and often accepting the social privilege which it entails).
In the meantime, we do not think it is productive to silence middle-class women, although admittedly we wouldn’t want anyone to listen to those in the NGO sector who bang on about ‘empowering poor women through microcredit schemes’ and such-like. But not all ‘middle class feminists’ necessarily have a middle class position, and some raise important issues that affect not just their narrow interests, but the lives of working class women. They can, and do, also raise questions around a structural commonality of gender relations within the different classes that have important implications for our political understanding and activity. On what basis can we talk about a structural commonality?
*Housework and the structural relation between gender relations within different classes
The issue of housework came up in the post-December 16th debate in an attempt by the group ‘radical notes’ to forge a structural link between working class and middle class women, as an attempt to counteract MJ’s idea that each class has its own specific women’s question. They said that because all women have to do domestic work, or are at least expected to, this provides a common material basis of experience and possibly struggle for all women. However, MJ problematised this by tracing the changing nature of housework for different classes of women and at different phases of capitalism and the mode of production. She rightly pointed out that domestic work is not the same for middle class women who can afford to pay someone else to do this work for them and working class women who have more of a ‘double burden’ of work. These class differences obviously exist, especially so in India where the difference in income levels is so vast, and where it is commonplace for middle class women to use the labour of working class women in their homes. In the sense that domestic work is generally done by working class women, for themselves and their families, as well as the middle class, either unwaged or at the lowest wages, it forms a material basis for their continuing subjugated position, as well as being an expression of their worse position on the labour market.
But ‘middle class’ women experience rape and sexual violence at the hands of their male friends and husbands too. MJ attempts to explain this as a ‘projected victimhood’ of working class women sticking to middle-class women. This explanation is not convincing and we think instead it points to a structural intra-class commonality of gender relations instead which we trace back to: the gendered split between the reproductive and productive spheres that is present within all classes; gendered institutions and women’s particular role as labour within capitalism.
The emergence of capitalism was contradictory: it undermined the previous patriarchal (feudal) institutions, but at the same time, alongside the development of an idea of a bourgeois subject, it largely universalized gender roles across classes. The welfare and medical system to a certain extent generalized both a ‘scientific view of women’s social biology’ and reproductive norms. And certain institutions emerged where, despite major class differences within, lower and upper class males converged. (And if there is a dynamic which projects the victimhood of working class women onto middle-class women, then there exists a similar dynamic which binds working-class men to the ‘masculinity’ of upper-class men). These became schools of masculinity, such as large armies, settler economies, the prison system, religious organisations, certain industries. These institutions worked as buffer-zones during times of labour market contraction: working class men migrated, were drawn into the army, got material relief by entering cross-class religious organisations etc.; working men enter them (they are forced to enter them) and come together with men of other classes in a hierarchical masculine separate sphere, which both discipline the male working class, maintain hierarchical structures and train them to discipline ‘their women’. The sexist consciousness within the working class therefore cannot be treated as mere ‘false consciousness’, as remnants or ‘release valves’, but its fundaments have to be attacked materially. These general capitalist institutions, mainly lead by men, also increasingly shaped the conflict around the uneven distribution of (domestic) labour and power within the working class, mainly the access to the labour market. Iran is an example where the state/religious forces was able to push back female employment; it is partly based on ‘masculine institutions’, defending the access right of working class men to a shrinking labour market through conservative ideology. But we can also see that nowadays it requires a police state in order to reproduce this separation; ‘women’ can be one of the first who can crack the shell of this police state. All in all, the sexist ideology of the upper-class seemed not as unrelated to the conditions of the working class as it was during feudal times, when these ‘civic’ institutions did not exist to such an extent.
These, often state-backed institutions, are also one way in which gender differences are constantly reproduced despite capitalism undermining the biological reasons for the division of labour between men and women (e.g. through automisation that means physical strength cannot be used as a reason for employing men over women). Male institutions such as the army, prison system, some parts of the organised labour and left movements for example perpetuate gender and class hierarchies and privileges, so an essential part of class struggle is attacking these institutions, including crucially, the family. In this case, we believe it is naïve for MJ to think this will not involve some ‘direct’ challenging of working class male power by (working class) women at particular moments.
*Escaping the kitchen, home and family
The question of where the material basis for women’s oppression lies is the crucial one. We have mentioned the fact that one view that came out in the debate is that women’s subjugated position is situated mainly in their role as unwaged domestic or reproductive workers. MJ discusses two strategies that have developed in response to the fact that women have been trapped in the home: (1) the ‘wages for housework’ campaign in the 70s, which she is highly critical of in terms of its status as an unrealistic demand and cementing women’s position in the home and (2) the entry of women en mass into the labour force, which provides the material basis to challenge sexism and gender hierarchies. While this is broadly true, we would also say this alone is not enough as waged work participation is equal to men’s in countries in Europe but sexual violence against women stubbornly persists at high rates. This is because, within capitalism, women are always the reserve army of labour because they bear children and so will always be less attractive to employers, embodying (whether in reality or potentially) a social cost to capital. And if they are not waged workers, they will be a burden on the male wage, causing resentment, or if they are waged, as competitors undercutting the wages of working class men (or middle class men if we are talking about middle class women). This better explains to us the material basis of sexual violence against women within each class.
While the abolition of the capitalist system is obviously where to channel our energies, the question of how to be in a better position to be able to do this becomes pressing. MJ sees full employment as both a precondition and demand for women’s equality. But this is not achievable under current social conditions. In a crisis, women are either pushed back into the home or into poorer paid jobs, which will not necessarily improve their material and collective positions.
So what other strategies are there? Women’s experiences as waged workers and within the home need to be shared and heard amongst the working class and their organisations; more struggles will need to be generalised outside of the factory-to other workplaces and the home; current ‘working class’ forms of organisation will need to be challenged and re/newly-organised to meet the needs of women as workers and the primary caregivers; current formal organising structures such as unions that separate different workers will need to be broken free of; women will need to get into a position to have more free time to collectivise their struggles; autonomous forms of collective childcare will need to be organised; other reproductive tasks will need to be socialised and the separation of work and home/public and private need to be questioned; sexism by working class men and ‘revolutionary left’ organisations needs to be challenged. This is not meant to sound voluntaristic, but we pose some suggestions and questions that will undoubtedly arise as the social churning in the current phase continues.
Finally, we conclude with the ultimate question: how do we envisage a mode of production after capitalism that does not reproduce a gendered division of labour and ‘gender’ even as a concept, given the fact that women bear children? If capitalist ‘social productivity’ is the material basis not only to think about ‘gender’, but also how to overcome the social division of labour which gender is based on, how can we the same time criticise the means at which form essential parts of it, from mechanisation to milk powder, fertilisers to caesareans, from the pill to all the ‘labour saving technologies?’ For while we would by no means seek to ‘condemn’ those that use a machine or the pill on an individual level, their production has also enslaved us and destroyed our environment. And where can we see the seeds of a social alternative within the present? These are the questions we are currently grappling with. Please let us know your thoughts so we can continue the discussion and maybe write another paper together.
Hopefully to be continued, questioned and debated…
Over the past few weeks, Feminist Fightback activists have joined members of the North London Solidarity Federation in picketing against workfare.
On 22 March, as part of the Boycott Workfare campiagn’s week of action, we spent a snowy afternoon in Leytonstone picketing Argos. Argos is one of the many companies who use workfare - where those who are in receipt of welfare are forced to work unapaid or will see their benefits cut. Most shoppers were unaware of Argos’s involvement in the scheme – and many were keen to find out more.
On 10 April, the picket was at Home for Haringey, the council housing provider. They claim participation in the scheme is voluntary – yet claimants are sanctioned by the Job Centre for not turning up to workfare placements.
More pickets set to follow – watch this space!
Mass protest at Thompson Reuters
FRIDAY 16 MARCH, 5:00 PM
33 Aldgate High Street London EC3N 1DL, next to Aldgate tube station
JOHN MCDONNELL MP
STEVE HEDLEY RMT London Regional Organiser,
JOHN MALONEY – PCS DfT Group Secretary
Further protests at Thompson Reuters in Canary Wharf on Friday 30th March
Feminist Fightback will be hosting AK-Feminismus, a feminist group from Berlin, from 29th March-4th April, following the visit of a group of us to Berlin earlier this year. More info on the group is at the bottom of this email.
While they are here, we are hoping that they can meet lots of other anti-capitalist feminist groups and individuals to allow them to get a bit of an idea of what people in London are working on at the moment and to discuss some points of intersection.
“We are a work group of the naturfreundejugend berlin. since our first meeting 2008 we have discussed theories and political strategies that link feminist and queer issues and struggles with critics of capitalism and related struggles. Starting from Marx, Engels and some of the first marxist feminists like Clara Zetkin, we have taken a closer look to later feminist movements and theories that followed a materialistic approach. For instance we discussed feminist struggles and demands during the 70s in Germany which focused on reproductive labour and ‘housework’ (Hausarbeit). We discussed and questioned their demand for paid housework and their attempts to find other definitions of Marx’s critical terms as productive and unproductive work, reproduction and exportation in order to politicise domination and exploration at home. This included the idea of unavailing emotional and affective labour of women which is usually invisible and unpaid – also when part of wage labour. In this regard we have been talking about utopian ideas of a better organisation of work/labour and
society. It seemed to us that – from a feminist point of view – socialist utopia and ideas on possible future modes of labour and production have been rather blind to gender issues e.g. by using a very narrow notions of exploitation (exclusively in ‘productive’ labour).
Apart from our discussions on labour in order to intersect feminist, queer and anti-capitalist struggles and debates, we also tried to figure out common epistemological and ontological groundings of marxist and feminist theories and analyses of history, capitalist societies, and gender oppression. We read and discussed some newer materialist and post-postmodernist feminist philosophical writing on epistemological and ontological ideas e.g. from Donna Haraway and Karen Baret.
Looking more to the developments and massive political changes on the labour marked and elsewhere since the 70s, we have tried to consider
changing modes of labour and working conditions for women. Especially regarding a growing sector of care work and a tendency of the inclusion of emotional and affective skills of the work force in the post-fordist era.
Since 2010 we wanted to have a wider attention and started thinking about getting more connected to different feminist and anti-capitalist struggles. We started working on and carrying out a militant research about the question of being constantly overloaded. Especially as women due to expectations and necessities to do additional care and affective work in your workspace as well as in your family, social context and relationships. Apart from the very different living and working conditions and experience of women of with different racial or class backgrounds and identities, we thought that this might be a common experience and as so a good common point of departure for a more unified feminist and anti-capitalist struggle against different
kinds of domination deeply interlinked with systems of sex-gender domination and acted out though different ways of exploitation and power over the labour force of others.
At the moment we are planning a poster campaign, that can be seen as an amplification to the former project and has the goal to unveil reproductive and unpaid work. The campaign aims for the recognition and against the denial of invisible labour which is often done by women. The campaign is also planned as a means to fight together and collective rather than individualising the problem. By pointing outexperience of overload is not a singular or personal one, but results from certain structural problems, division of labour and the capitalist mode of production, which cannot be solved individually but only collectively. We also want to point out that people are affected differently by neoliberal invocations – depending on “gender“, “race”, “class” and other structure categories.”
Stop the Arrests Campaign, a coalition of sex worker rights activists and supporters, is calling for a moratorium on arrests, detention and deportation of sex workers in London with immediate effect until the end of the Olympic Games.
Prior to the Olympics run up anti-trafficking laws and policies were resulting in brothel raids, closures and arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation of people working in the sex industry. For many sex workers these laws have dire consequences. Such policing creates a climate of fear among workers, leaving them less likely to report crimes against them – including violence and exploitation in the industry and more vulnerable to abuse.1
A series of violent robberies on brothels in Barking & Dagenham by a gang in December 2011 demonstrates the effect that this climate of fear can have on the safety of sex workers. After the robberies, carried out at knifepoint, sex workers were deterred from pursuing the attacks because police threatened them with prosecution. There were many more subsequent attacks and one woman was raped. But once the police agreed to an amnesty from arrest, sex workers were able to come forward.2
After 2006 a meme emerged suggesting that with every major sporting event comes a huge increase in trafficking of women for sexual slavery. The government, charity organisations and campaign groups have gone along with this. Such claims, often repeated by the media, are usually based on misinformation, poor data and a tendency to sensationalise.
Pressure groups cite the football World Cups in Germany and South Africa as evidence. Yet the claim that 40,000 women were trafficked into Germany in 2006 has been refuted by reports by the International Organisation for Migration, as well as by the Global Alliance Against Trafficking of Women. South African sex workers even noted a slump in demand during the World Cup, stating that they were disappointed that customers were “more concerned about football than in sex.”
Lobbying groups, including charities and non-governmental organisations have sprung up in London – many of which have no prior knowledge of the sex industry or experience of working with sex workers – citing this purported link and demanding measures such as increased law enforcement (policing) of sex work and a ban on advertising sexual services.
Nonetheless, there is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.3 This myth has reverberated throughout the media, activist circles and it now shaping policing policy in London.
We are aware of “clean up efforts” underway in London, particularly east London, in the run up to the Olympics. These include multiple raids and closure of premises. We anticipate that until the end of the Olympic games there will be a continued rise in the numbers of raids, arrests, deportations and level of harassment of sex workers.
Police have intensified raids on sex work premises, which have been ten times higher in the five Olympic boroughs than the rest of the city’s boroughs. This, the claim goes, is unrelated to the Olympics. But there have been 80 brothels shut down in Newham in 18 months and over seventy arrests in Tower Hamlets and Newham since the beginning of 2012. These arrest levels already exceed the total number for 2011.
The closure of brothels and flats leaves sex workers without premises from which to work, often forcing them onto the street, where they are more likely to be heavily policed, attacked or assaulted.
This is militarised spatial and social cleansing in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. Yet it is women’s safety and the desire to eliminate trafficking that is the narrative through which this aggressive agenda is being played out!
It is in this context that the Stop the Arrests Campaign is calling for a moratorium on arrests, detention and deportation of sex workers in London with immediate effect until the end of the Olympic Games. What this means is that we want the Mayor of London and London Metropolitan police, in co-operation with the UK Border Agency to,
1. Suspend offences that refer directly to sex workers: soliciting and prosecution for working collectively under brothel keeping laws
2. Suspend arrests of sex workers, administrative detainment and / or deportation, during the enforcement of offences relating to third parties, namely causing, inciting or controlling for gain.
3. Suspend the closure of premises through the use of closure orders and notices.
Go to http://www.moratorium2012.org to learn more about the campaign, read the open letter that will shortly be sent to the Mayor and sign the petition.
Notes: 1. x:talk (2010), Human rights, Sex Work and the Challenge of Trafficking
2. Owen Bowcott, “Call for change in law to protect prostitutes from violent crime”, Guardian 6/01/12, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jan/16/change-law-prostitutes-crime-violent
3. Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), (2011) What’s the Cost of a Rumour? A Guide to Sorting Out the Myths and Facts about Sporting Events and Trafficking. http://www.gaatw.org/publications/What’s_the_Cost_of_a_Rumour-GAATW2011.pd
Many of us work in the public sector and took strike action on June and November 30th, or played a role in supporting this action in our communities. This experience threw up many of the above questions, as well as practical issues about the nuts and bolts of workplace organising. We have started to discuss these questions in our collective, and now are keen to work with others who have found themselves facing similar challenges – to share skills, ideas and experiences.
All genders welcome.
The venue is accessible and a volunteer-run creche will be provided. Suggested donation of £4 low/ unwaged, £8 waged, includes lunch. Please register in advance so we know how much lunch to make!
For workshop booklet click here.
Please contact us if you want to come so we have an idea of numbers, and if you have any requirements that we can help with or if you can do a slot in the creche, at email@example.com.
Fightback has welcomed the report launched this month by the x:talk project ‘Human Rights, Sex Work and the Challenge of Trafficking: Human rights impact assessment of anti-trafficking policy in the UK’. Download a copy of the report.
“This welcome report confirms what we suspected. Far from protecting vulnerable people the anti-trafficking laws are increasing the vulnerability of sex workers to abuse and exploitation. Lawmakers need to address seriously the recommendations of the report, including the question of decriminalisation.”
Ava Caradonna, sex worker and spokeswoman for x:talk, said:
“We have always suspected that attempts to address human trafficking have been co-opted by people with another agenda—the eradication of the sex industry. What the x:talk report has highlighted is that, rather than assisting and supporting trafficked people, anti-trafficking policies have been most effective at putting the safety, health and even the lives of sex workers at risk. They have also helped to make sex workers a soft target for the Border Agency.”
Thierry Schaffausser, president of the GMB Sex Workers’ branch said:
“The GMB has passed motions to support labour rights for sex workers as the best way to combat human trafficking and migrant workers’ exploitation. Prohibition actually worsens workers’ exploitation and creates the kind of conditions that generate trafficking. Last July, the LGBT TUC Conference also voted a motion calling for labour rights approaches to fight trafficking in the sex industry in the same way we do for all industries.”
On Saturday 23 April between 10am and 1pm supporters of Zara Senkan leafleted customers of , boarding at Victoria Bus Station. They highlighted a serious issue of sex discrimination and victimisation at the company.
Zara worked for the company for five years until the end of 2010 when she was sacked. During that time she was on the receiving end of bullying, sexism and unfair treatment by managers and co-workers. Zara was sacked shortly after she submitted a grievance to the company about some of these issues.
Zara started working for The Original Tour as a driver. In 2006, when she also began working as a controller, her problems began.
Supported by her union, the RMT, Zara is pursuing a case for sex discrimination through an employment tribunal.
All Zara wants is to set the record straight and prove that Original Tour was guilty of condoning and worse, perpetrating, clear sexist and unfair treatment that should have no place in any company. It is especially shocking that these bullying working practices took place at such long-standing, large company that claims to be “family friendly”.
Zara sums it up:
“They wanted me to have a nervous breakdown and leave the job, but they couldn’t break me so they sacked me”.
Pre-election promises made by the Tories to protect the NHS from the devastating cuts being made to public services, have recently been exposed as farcical. The coalition government’s proposed reform threatens to completely remove the NHS from its founding principles of free comprehensive care based on the population’s needs, and is set to open the door even wider to private profit-making companies. Meanwhile, the imposed ‘productivity targets’ and ‘efficiency savings’ (£20 billion to be squeezed out over 4 years) are beginning to bite.
Cuts to frontline staff, ward closures and diminished services are now a serious concern across the whole spectrum of health care services. Barts and the London hospital made the headlines last week with their plans to reduce nursing staff on the wards, cutting 10% of nurses. 630 jobs are estimated to be lost overall. London Ambulance service has also just announced their plans to cut 890 jobs, including 560 frontline workers.
The pressure on frontline staff is, as always, keenly felt in maternity care where the shortage of midwives is a chronic problem. And nowhere have the Tories more unashamedly reneged on their promises. Their pre-election promise to increase the number of midwives by 3000 was swiftly dumped by the coalition government. UK maternity wards are now at crisis point, and fears over the stillbirth and maternal death rates continue to make headlines. Despite this midwifery services are being pared back and training budgets disappearing. On top of this CEMACE, a body that investigates and reports on all deaths related to childbirth to improve the quality of maternity care, has just been scrapped.
This government’s agenda of cuts is set to cause irreparable damage to our NHS and must be resisted. The Royal College of Nurses voted 99% in favour of a vote of no confidence in health secretary Andrew Landsley, and the coalition have since announced a ‘pause’ in the program of reform. This is a purely cynical attempt to soften the blow, and plans are going full steam ahead as the NHS chief of staff has himself admitted. Health workers and users of the NHS have been joining forces to fight for the NHS in their local areas and various groups will be attending a demonstration on the 17th May.
Almost every school in the borough closed either partially or entirely on 30 March due to joint action by local Unison and the NUT. After picket lines were held, several hundred people assembled at Weavers Fields for a march to a rally at the London Muslim Centre. I’d walked some of the way with my school through our neighbourhood. Kids were on our megaphone all the way, other kids leaned out of windows to cheer us, cars beeped, and we got escorted off the premises of Canary Wharf to one of my kids leading a chant of “you’ve got loads of money”.
We were en route to support workers at another school where the head had been leading a campaign of intimidation against strikers. We met the workers of a Sure Start children’s centre holding a formidable picket line — this was one of many highlights, as we all cheered in riotous solidarity. Before we knew it, about 2,000 people had taken to the streets, the majority of them women, many of whom had never struck or demonstrated before. The demonstration, full of school bands and workers with their kids marching as service users as well as providers, felt massive, was incredibly loud and lively, and got loads of public support. Another of my kids appeared out of nowhere, clutched my hand and said in an awestruck whisper “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The rally consisted of a top-table speaker panel made up of male union big-wigs. There was lots of fighting talk from the bureaucracy. Hundreds of people made it to the rally. There was lots of chanting demanding a general strike, a big vote in favour of combined public sector union action over pensions, and, I hope, a sense that we need to hold our tub-thumping “leaders” to account and demand action.
Obviously a one-day strike by itself is going to win nothing, but this was a necessary experience for us. It gave us practice at organising, arguing, mobilising and demonstrating. It was a massive confidence boost to lots of us who are feeling our way for the first time with this stuff. Perhaps most important, it allowed us to have solidarity with workers of different unions, in different schools, with parents and children — in short, our community.
Opportunities to build this solidarity are in themselves vital if we are going to be able to go on to fight a battle with a chance of winning. One opportunity may be soon as the NUT plans to ballot over national strike action on cuts in pensions.
By a Tower Hamlets teacher and member of Feminist Fightback Collective
In March 2011 University lecturers went on strike against significant cuts to their pension scheme which included forcing employees to pay more while their employers pay less, and ending the final salary scheme for anyone new to the workforce.
Picket lines went up in every college and university across Britain totalling five strike days. Pensions are now political. Many students were also clear that these seemingly bureaucratic changes were part of a broader attack on higher education which affected them too. This is an attack that seeks to create divisions between baby boomers and those of us under 35, erasing the memory and sense of entitlement to something as basic as the right to retire without fear of poverty. Many students supported the strike, and at Goldsmiths College, University of London they took over management’s offices for 4 days – an interesting tactic whereby an occupation was used to enforce a picket line and prevent bosses from coming to work.
But the sexist nature of these attacks on pensions needs to be more strongly highlighted. For the proposed changes discriminate especially against any employee whose wishes to take a career break or to return to work part-time. They are therefore most likely to affect women with children – further limiting any choice we might have about how to combine work with family life. They will reinforce conservative and nuclear family arrangements, deterring fathers or non-biological family members from taking an equal part in childcare.
Less than one hundred years ago women were still fighting to study at universities on an equal basis with men. Until the Second World War, female lecturers at most universities were required to resign their posts on marriage. It is ironic (if it were not so predictable) that, just at the moment in which women have begun to enter a relatively prestigious profession in equal numbers to men, that profession becomes devalued and degraded. Academia today is still a comparatively welcoming space for feminists: but right now our feminism needs to extend beyond the words we write in books to struggling in our own workplaces against retrograde practices which divide and exploit in highly gendered ways.
By a member of Feminist Fightback
Report back from workshop at ‘Women At the Cutting Edge’ regarding how public sector cuts relate to feminism.
Overview of the cuts
Ideological attacks on none nuclear families, while the reality is that more than ever “families” need two adults just to survive.
Legal Aid cuts compound difficulties that people face with the benefits system. Home repossession will be a big feature of the next period.
Employers will use whatever leverage they can against low paid and public sector workers (=women workers). They will attack wages (including pensions) but also be bullies. Use of sickness records. Disciplining workers and giving them the boot just before retirement. Voluntary redundancy process will be used to bully people.
Moreover, there seems to be a lot of bullying going on in many areas. E.g. at the when people are “signing on”. Vulnerable people are going to feel most under attack (disabled, long-term sick, people with caring responsibilities). There may be a return to the assumption that a man is the “head of household” is the breadwinner. The bullying is compounded by the contradiction that it is going to be increasingly difficult to “go back to work”. It is difficult to see how the government/state is going to manage this contradiction. There are big implications for how we struggle against public sector cuts.
The intersectional exploitation of people – race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, nationality etc…
The role of the family unit in reproducing capitalism.
Cuts will mean that women will not only loose their jobs (given they make up the majority of as precarious workers & public sectors workers) but that a reduction in reproductive and welfare services will place greater burdens on women in terms of their unpaid work.
How does the law help us? Equality legislation only obliges Local Authority to do an assessment on the gender impact – we not have to do anything beyond that…
We are stronger than we think. We genuinely are, all in it together. They are packaging cuts, we can do “packaging” too.
Changes are structural. They are creating new divisions or revamping old ones e.g. between the deserving and undeserving poor. They are now talking about benefits as a privelege, not a means to help out vulnerable in society.
Cuts and privatisation are piecemeal. We need to get a grip on the areas and points at which we can mount a challenge.
Report back from workshop at ‘Women At the Cutting Edge’ and suggestions for how to further pursue the questions it raised.
Aims of the workshop
What the workshop came up with…;
Many people did not have time to use public services because they had to work full time – a teacher said she hadn’t been to the dentist for years, a civil servant never got to her local library, a charity worker couldn’t take time off to visit her GP.
They were all public sector workers and public service users, but these two different roles were completely separated. People also suggested that their own stresses and work pressures as public service workers made them more demanding about the service provision they received from other public sector workers.
People spoke positively about their experiences of the NHS – a life saving service. They also commented on the long waiting lists, and sometimes grumpy and over-worked staff that came with this, though this did not stop them from strongly endorsing the service. One participant felt strongly as a result that our first and foremost position had to be to defend these services, not to critique them.
This connected to a point about there being great potential in all our public service institutions which was often stifled because workers were prevented from doing the job properly. One positive arising from this was that the fury and frustration that it provoked might be effectively channelled into fighting management.
Going on strike might be seen (and argued for) as the ultimate experience of workers taking control of these services.
Guilt of state workers providing essential services such as education or public transport when they either had to limit their work in order to protect their own health or withdraw their labour during strikes. In this context it was useful to point out to service users that management, who force workers into these positions, are NOT running the service for the benefit of the public.
This was a clear example of the paradoxical/ dual nature of these services – in whose interests they are run and how they are run depends on who runs them?
Higher education provided another useful example of the multiple ways in which the state operated in this context. On the one hand higher education could be a liberating and transformative experience for working class people. Yet the higher education establishment is currently structured to operate as a border, benefitting a chosen few and deliberately excluding the majority, and it is upon this exclusion that it derives its prestige. So now higher education, or lack of it, is also a way of ensuring that people who don’t have a degree will be trapped in minimum wage jobs. One participant felt strongly that as a result is was not possible to simply defend higher education (despite his positive experience of it), we need to imagine a different system altogether[?].
Important to ask who is empowered to access state services and who is not.
State services and the housing system were even more explicit examples of ‘gate-keeping’ public resources – dividing working class people and making them see each other as the enemy.
Case Study: Taking over the local library
What would happen if we took over a local library earmarked for closure? Would we just be providing this service for free?
Case Study: ESOL Classes
Free ESOL classes provided by volunteers in a migrant resource centre are being used to fill in the gap in provision created by under-funded FE college and closure of ESOL courses there.
Questions/ Issues to Pursue Further…
Do we need to go back to basics? To ask why these services exist in the first place? What is their function? What are people’s needs? Why do people need them?
How can we challenge fragmentation between workers and services users as well as breaking up of these services themselves?
The Arbout, 100 Shandy Street, E1 4ST
(nearest tube Stepney Green)
On 20 October the ConDem government’s “Spending Review” will detail enormous cuts in public services. We are already feeling the impact of earlier cuts many effected by Labour; nurseries and libraries are closing, jobs are being lost. As the government “austerity drive” steps up, the reality is that cuts will hit the lives of all but the wealthiest. In many cases women will be hit the hardest with recent reports estimating that women will suffer 72% of the tax and benefit cuts.
Whether you’re a feminist, an activist, a trade unionist, someone affected by the cuts, or involved in fighting the cuts in your college, community or workplace, or just interested in how the landscape of the welfare state is changing, Feminist Figtback invites you to join a day of discussions and networking. We want to put these cuts in a political context, link up, and share ideas and skills as we plan to fight them together.
Free creche available. Open to people of all genders
For more information or to book a stall at the event or a place in the creche please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Laura on 07971 842027.
Participatory workshops on:
What’s going on? Mapping cuts and campaigns
Friends of Hackney Nurseries will be meeting outside the Town Hall, Mare St, E8, Wednesday 21st July 2010 at 6pm, to hand in our petition to the council.
We have invited Rita Krishna, member of Cabinet with responsibility for Children and Young People (and member of the board of the Learning Trust), to receive the petition from us before the Full Council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.
Thanks to vigorous campaigning by Friends of Hackney Nurseries, some of the 13 nurseries who had their commissioning grants arbitrarily removed in April have had most of their money restored. However, several have not, and have had to cut wages, number of childcare places, and are still in danger of closure.
There are still many unanswered questions about the future of our nurseries, especially in the light of proposed cuts to all public services. And the Learning Trust is still not making itself transparent and accountable to the people of Hackney.
Everyone who cares about nurseries, and indeed all the children of our borough, is welcome to join us – come and show the council and the Learning Trust that we will not be fobbed off.
In 1970, 560 women came together at Ruskin College, Oxford for the first UK women’s liberation conference. The activist network Feminist Fightback met in London on 2nd May to look at how far we have come 40 years on, inviting all genders to “consider what feminism looks like today, how the struggle continues, and put the battles women fight today in the context of the history of the women’s movement.”
To aid comparisons of the women’s movement then and now the programme included two films: A Woman’s Place (Journeyman Pictures, 1970) and an episode of the BBC series on women, Activists (broadcast, March, 2010). Post introductions, the Feminist Fightback meeting continued with screening the 1970 film, which included footage of the Ruskin conference and The International Women’s Day March held in London in 1971.
A great sense of urgency surrounded the Ruskin conference. Many more women than the organisers expected showed up for the event. Whilst women across the class spectrum were enlivened by each other’s speeches and debate men were presiding over a crèche in the wings. Even long dead men honourably remembered by other men with head and shoulder busts in their image were not privy, women having covered them with shawls and scarves.
All aspects of women’s lives were considered in the context of British society in 1970 – Women in prison, trade unions, housework, childrearing, for instances. One woman spoke of the need for “our children to be liberated from us”, implying a suffocating atmosphere presided over family living, women isolated and confined by the mother role. Women questioned whether the so-called “maternal instinct” was a real or imposed thing. They talked of possible alternative family structures where other adults and not the mother alone have childcare responsibilities such as communes. One middle-aged working class woman, wholly unused to speaking before a large audience, grew in confidence as she spoke of her life as a housewife and mother of four children as a life of missed opportunities. Another woman said she would like not to be thought a freak because she had no interest in children whatsoever. Women discussed the thorough injustice of their economic dependence on men, their work as mothers going unacknowledged and unpaid and the political implications of that – reproducing a workforce for capitalism whilst simultaneously being disenfranchised by that system.
Some months later 4,000 women took to the streets of London for the International Women’s Day March with placards and banners demanding these basic rights. They presented their petition in writing to 10 Downing Street. The seriousness of their demands to tackle the inequalities imposed on them by virtue of their biology did not stop these women’s enjoyment of the march. There was a carnival atmosphere. A needlework dummy bound to a crucifix was held aloft by some women while others dance-exercised ironically to Eddie Cantor’s ‘Keep young and beautiful, its your duty to be beautiful’. One woman mocked beauty pageants, her sash reading, ‘Ms Stress’. Clearly the Ruskin conference had been a resounding success, women politicised and adamantly seeking immediate changes to an unjust system.
So how are things looking in 2010?
The sad answer is, not very good at all. In spite of the Equal Pay Act implemented in 1970 and the various adjustments made to it since women are still lagging behind men in financial status. They are far more likely than men to work in part-time employment as they are more usually the primary carers of either children and/or disabled or elderly relatives. Part-time work such as care-work or cleaning is given low status and is extremely poorly paid. The model of ‘superwoman’ is held as the ideal. Women are urged ‘to have it all’ – both the children and the career. This can effectively mean that you either pay – usually another woman – a low wage for childcare, or if lowly paid yourself, childcare will take up a disproportionate amount of your income.
Feminist Fightback are currently involved in a campaign to save Hackney nurseries, “cuts … being handed out in a piecemeal fashion, with no warning to nurseries all over Hackney.” Thus nursery fees go up and living standards go down making rubbish of Labour’s insistence that they were fighting to reduce child poverty. And Britain with a Tory prime minister is sure to make matters far worse, a part of the Tory/Liberal pact being to immediately put into operation Tory’s plans to severely cut funds to all public services so to appease the IMF (America’s chief say-so).
And so to the BBC4 documentary, where the feminist activists concentrated on made all these social conditions notable by not mentioning any of them. Finn Mackay is the founder of the London Feminist Network and Co-founder of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution and it was these movements that the documentary wholly centred around. Mackay is described on her blog, “She is a well-practiced public speaker with particular emphasis on violence against women, prostitution and feminism in the UK.” Indeed, she appeared a charismatic leader in the film as with a raised fist she delivered her speech at The London Feminist Network’s Conference to an all women audience, many of whom were in floods of tears.
The interviewer asked woman after woman what her chief concerns were regarding feminism. Cited were just these: male violence against women, prostitution, pornography and sexual objectification. There was much belittling of these women by the programme makers. They were mostly young, middle-class women living at home with their parents. Parents were also interviewed and rather geed along when showing prejudice against their daughter’s activism, one mother saying she could not understand her daughter’s penchant for dressing up while protesting against objectification.
Feminist Fightback rightly cut a huge swathe from this film that concentrated on food preparation for the LFN conference – veganism read as joyless Puritanism by the film-maker, and the viewer impelled to think likewise. Campaigns by LFN include Reclaim The Night, ‘Bin the Bunny’ (referring to the cynical use of the Playboy bunny emblazoned across children’s clothes etc.) One woman spoke of the horrific event that had made her become an activist in the movement: recounting that after her daughter’s friend had been gang raped, the police later made charges against her saying that she had perverted the course of justice, citing mobile phone footage her attackers had filmed. They eventually succeeded in getting the charges dropped but were further shocked to learn that there were no rape crisis centres in the whole of London.
There was some extremely disturbing footage of women from the LFN shouting “shame, shame” at people entering a lap-dancing club. They were shouting this as much at the female employees as at the male audience, creating divisions between those women and themselves.
After the film showings the mostly women crowd present at the Feminist Fightback event came together to discuss the films, make comparisons and consider the feminist movement today. In the lively discussion, personal experiences were used as much as the historical perspectives raised by the films.
Much noted was the absolute absence of considerations surrounding class or indeed any other political analysis in the BBC4 film. Women spoke of their concerns about others considering feminism an outmoded if not dirty word. There was consensus that we should openly and unashamedly say that we are feminists to other women and men. How this consciousness raising is exercised was another problem discussed – not wanting to come across preachy, for instance.
We discussed the issue of objectification so concentrated upon by the women from LFN. Participants articulated the belief that the media perpetuated women’s concern with their bodies by constantly documenting this apparent all consuming concern, anorexia, for instance, being a favourite topic of documentary makers. We discussed society placing such high value on being in a couple. One woman quoted a bride’s speech, “I was nothing till I met you”, “now I am complete”. People expressed concern over feeling that you had to do your best to feign interest in wedding preparations – cooing over the dress for instance, women feeling that they would otherwise endanger friendships, though they are not allowed the space to say, “this is shit”.
Many considered that LFN’s demand to have porn banned by the state was not a progressive argument, and indeed a simplification of matters, particularly demeaning porn being a symptom that needs to be attacked via its root causes and likewise the LFN’s attitude to prostitution; Feminist Fightback are demanding that sex-workers be decriminalised.
There was consensus that the BBC4 programme was horribly malicious and a farcical comparison with the 1970 Journeyman film. And what of women’s own sexuality and their enjoyment of sex, should this not be talked about?
Many other subjects were touched upon at this meeting. In fact all of the grass-root feminist concerns the women from the 1970 Ruskin conference were talking about then are still very much the concern of Feminist Fightback now. It is a terrible shame that the media present body image and objectification issues above all else as grass-roots feminism, when you only need to watch A Woman’s Place to know that that is absolutely not the case. Feminism must be bound with political activism.
by Sharon Borthwick
In 1970 hundreds of women gathered for a free conference at Ruskin College that would launch the Second Wave of feminism. As men provided the childcare, women discussed and debated ideas and experiences, and identified what the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement as they saw it, should be.
Feminist Fightback invite you to an afternoon of film showings and discussions as we think about how far we have come, what feminism looks like today, how the struggle continues, and put the battles women fight today in the context of the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Films will include:
Journeyman Picture’s A Woman’s Place (1970)
Excerpts from the BBC’s Women series (2010)
Wednesday 18th November 12-2pm
With GMB’s contract being transferred to Initial, who are to further sub-contract it to ICS, Tube cleaners are angry that they are being treated like parcels to be passed around. Multiple subcontracting means sackings, and the driving down of wages. The only solution is to kick out the contractors and bring Tube cleaning back into an integrated, publicly-owned London Underground.
On Wednesday, tube cleaners and supporters, including Feminist Fightback, Campaign Against Immigration Controls and John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP demonstrated outside City Hall to demand that Boris keeps his promise of a living wage for all tube cleaners.
Boris has been in the press this week with the publishing of the study he commissioned into an amnesty. Yet his real approach to migrant labour can be found in how he has dealt with the tube cleaners’ campaign: promise a living wage, fail to deliver and preside over cleaning contractors who targeted union reps with immigration checks to break the RMT’s organisation. His idea of an amnesty would deny even those who met its hurdles access to the public services their taxes pay for, and would further delegitimise the thousands who wouldn’t meet its strict criteria.
Feminist Fightback is proud to stand by tube cleaners as they demand a living wage for all. It’s time Boris coughs up, brings the cleaners in house and starts talking about regularisation for all migrant workers.
The march followed a week of action since the cuts were announced on 5 June, including an unofficial walkout on 8 June, a lobby of the principal on 9 June (with staff joined by 50 students who pushed past security after being denied entry for having the wrong pass), protests at the college’s awards ceremony and joint UCU and Unison meetings on 12 June proposing a vote of no confidence in newly-appointed Principal Michael Farley. After the meetings, ESOL learners marched with their teachers, other college staff and supporters from the college’s adult education site at Arbour Square to a rally outside the 14-19 site at Poplar. Students and staff are angry and worried about the future, but there was a sense of hope as this anger was channelled into action to protect jobs and courses, and a real feeling of solidarity as students, staff and representatives of other unions addressed those assembled at Poplar.
The document Michael Farley circulated to college staff on Friday 5 June laid outproposed cuts of £2 million, which will see 50% of all ESOL courses offered by Tower Hamlets College cut from September. The document, ironically titled ‘Securing the Future’ detailed the loss of over 1,500 ESOL places alongside 60 job losses. There is now a one month ‘consultation period’ on the document, with staff being told on 6th July if they are at risk of ‘dismissal’ (the language used in the document). Those who are going to be dismissed will be told on 10th July, just before the end of the college term. Teaching staff, support staff and learning centre staff will all be affected. Staff have been consoled with the fact that new posts are being created, but unsurprisingly these are not teaching posts and the majority are business positions.
The ESOL classes most affected by the cuts will be at entry levels, those in the college’s community outreach centres, those not expressly for work. They therefore affect the most vulnerable and historically excluded students, and will affect the wider community as well as current and potential learners. The attack is gendered as well as racist– the vast majority of those attending courses are women. Some are recently arrived in the country, others have been here many years but never had the opportunity to attend a course before. Reasons for this include the incredible lack of ESOL provision in the decades prior to this one, time constraints because of their long hours of labour (particularly unpaid labour in the home), needing to travel outside their local area, and the fear of entering a classroom after negative experience or no prior experience of formal learning. Community-based provision is essential in helping to break down some of these barriers.
The 12 June demonstration itself was a testament to the role that ESOL has played in the lives of the (overwhelmingly female) student protesters. There were women leading chants on megaphones, women carrying placards with their own powerful slogans, and women speaking eloquently and emphatically to the national press about what ESOL means to them. Key messages were the need for English to allow them to support their children’s learning, so they can be a part of their communities and (contrary to the views many hold of these learners) so they can work.
These women have developed not only language skills, but increased confidence, self-esteem and above all a critical engagement with the world around them. And it is this which underlies this fight. The fight is for jobs, for student places, but also for the principle of education itself.
For more information on the struggle, go to http://defendjobsandeducation.posterous.com or see http://www.uculeft.devisland.net/tower-hamlets-college-dispute.html
Students and allies at the University of London’s School of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have occupied the university to protest against managers’ attacks on migrant workers, when nine cleaners from the university were taken into detention after a dawn raid by immigration police on Friday. Five have already been deported and the two remaining are in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
We see this raid as indicative of a current political climate, which sees not only corporatisation of universities but the extension of surveillance and border processing to its institutions, affecting both staff and students. We need to form a national strategy uniting workers, staff, students and the wider community against racist immigration controls and erosion of workers rights.
***SUs contact your UNISON branch and speak to your cleaners. Find out which company they are contracted to, and identify individuals at risk. Contact us to receive translated booklets to help your cleaners prepare, and give them emergency contacts.
***As a long term more sustainable measure, campaign to unionise workers and bring them in house for equal protection of university staff.
***Take action against ISS (the company our cleaners are contracted to) and the Home Office.
***Follow us on http://freesoascleaners.blogspot.com. Join our occupation, send messages of support, sign our online petition and keep watch for upcoming demonstrations.
The cleaners won the London Living Wage and trade union representation after a successful “Justice for Cleaners” campaign. Activists believe the raid is managers’ “revenge” for the campaign.
John McDonnell MP said: “As living wage campaigns are building in strength, we are increasingly seeing the use of immigration statuses to attack workers fighting against poverty wages and break trade union
Immigration officers were called in by cleaning contractor ISS, even though it has employed many of the cleaners for years. Cleaning staff were told to attend an ‘emergency staff meeting’ at 6.30am on Friday (June 12); a false pretext to lure the cleaners into a closed space from which the immigration officers in full riot gear were hiding to interrogate and arrest them, before escorting them to the detention
centre. They were allowed no legal or trade union representation, or even a translator (many are native Spanish speakers).
Five of the SOAS cleaners have already been deported, and the others could face deportation within days. One has had a suspected heart attack and was denied access to medical assistance and even water. One was over 6 months pregnant. Many have families who have no idea of their whereabouts.
The management of SOAS, a university that prides itself on its global outlooks and left wing politics were complicit in the immigration raid by enabling the officers to hide in the meeting room beforehand and giving no warning to them. Cleaning contractor ISS used the same tactics against tube cleaners that went on strike with the result that key activists were deported.
Ken Loach says “Recent action by Unison to secure better wages and conditions at SOAS was good news. Now we wonder if the SOAS cleaners are being targeted because they dared to organise as trade unionists.”
Watch this space for news of demonstrations and other actions!
At the end of May, the London Mayor increased the London Living Wage to £7.60 an hour. Tubecleaners know they won’t see this increase without a fight. Despite the Mayor’s commitments to a living wage for cleaners on the underground last summer, it took months for the increase to kick in, and some contractors are still refusing to pay even this.
The Tubecleaners’ struggle highlights the way that gender and class intersect to heighten oppression – cleaning is undervalued because it is seen as women’s work; the majority of cleaners are migrant workers. We need to stand with the cleaners to demand an end to sexist, racist and capitalist exploitation.
Join the RMT picket of City Hall to call for this living wage for all tube cleaners, as well as for free travel to work / sick pay / decent pensions / 28 days’ annual leave / an end to third party sackings.
Wednesday 19 June 9.30am outside City Hall to coincide with Mayor’s Question Time (on the south of the river between Tower Bridge and London Bridge) – http://www.london.gov.uk/gla/locationmap.jsp
Bring banners, placards and noisemakers!
The demo has been postponed from 1 June but if you still have time on Monday 1 June, show solidarity with the people of Niger Delta. Many tubecleaners are from Nigeria, where multinational interests in natural resources have devastating consequences for communities….
THE NIGER DELTA SOLIDARITY CAMPAIGN IS ORGANISING A PUBLIC DEMONSTRATION IN LONDON AGAINST THE MASSACRES IN THE NIGER DELTA BY THE NIGERIAN ARMY
The people of the Niger Delta under the umbrella of the Niger Delta Solidarity campaign will be holding a public demonstration in London to protest against the invasion and bombing of several Niger Delta
communities by the Nigerian Military. These atrocious acts of brutality have led to an estimated death toll of over 1000 people and more than 20,0000 displaced people. Several towns and villages have been
completely razed and many others are under occupation by the military. These military attacks are still continuing today.
What: An evening of making trouble, sharing ideas and planning ways for women to fight back against the crisis, hosted by Feminist Fightback.
When: Tuesday 30th June, 5pm, and 6.30pm
Where: Paying a visit to Harriet Harman, Southwark Townhall (5pm), followed by film showing (6.30pm) at Studio 96, The Galleria, Pennack Road, SE16 6PW
All genders welcome!
This is a fundraiser for Lambeth Women’s Project www.lambethwomen.wordpress.com
Harriet Harman, Minister for Women, thinks that a ‘feminist’ response to the recession would be to place more women in top city jobs, putting them ‘in charge of the banks’. Meanwhile Harman supports the Welfare Reform Bill, which proposes to introduce US-style ‘workfare’ practices, forcing mothers of young children into minimum wage jobs or risk losing their benefits.
Harriet Harman likes to talk up her feminist credentials, but what kind of feminist only looks out for the interests of rich women during times of economic crisis? In fact, Harman has a long track record of selling out the majority of women she claims to represent – most recently playing a key role in blocking a Bill to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. If this is how the Minister for Women is going to act on our behalf, then we can do without her!
Fortunately, Harriet Harman’s feminism isn’t the only kind on offer. Many women in London are organising to resist the iniquities of capitalism – from the parents occupying Lewisham Bridge Primary School to protest against its privatisation; to hostel residents demanding decent housing in Hackney; to the Visteon workers who occupied their factory and finally won their redundancy.
Feminist Fightback has also been organising grass roots resistance to some of Harman’s biggest sell-outs during her time as Minister for Women – occupying the Department for Work and Pensions in protest against the Welfare Reform Bill, and taking direct action in solidarity with Northern Irish women who continue to be denied the right to control their own bodies.
Feminist Fightback invites you to join us outside Southwark Town Hall to show Harriet Harman that women have been fighting back in ways very different to those she proposes. We’ll be ‘decorating’ the Town Hall, sending messages to Ms Harman in a variety of ‘creative’ ways, and inviting our Minister for Women to come out and take a look!
This will be followed by a film showing introducing a number of women-led struggles taking place at the moment. We want this to be an opportunity to find out what’s going on in London; to make links with other women’s groups; and to find inspiration for how we can act collectively to take control of our workplaces, our communities and our lives.
On Tuesday 31 April, sex workers and our allies held a successful SPEAK OUT at the Eros Fountain, Piccadilly Circus against criminalisation and for labour rights for everyone who works in the sex industry. At 2.30pm, we took over one of the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill at Piccadilly Circus and unveiled a banner which read ‘SEX WORKERS ARE STOPPING THE TRAFFICK’.
Sex workers took direct action to highlight our opposition to the Policing and Crime Bill.
Speakers at the SPEAK OUT included representatives from the x:talk project, English Collective of Prostitutes, Sex Worker Open University, academics and sex worker rights activists from across Europe.
The issue of human trafficking in the sex industry has been used by the Government and those intent on abolishing the sex industry to justify the further criminalisation of the sex industry. The existing criminalisation of sex work effectively excludes workers in the sex industry from the full protection of the law. Increased criminalisation will further exacerbate this exclusion. All trafficked workers, regardless of the industry in which they work, face gross violations of their rights. Women in the sex industry should not be defined by the area in which they work.
“The Policing and Crime Bill will make it less, not more, safe for us to work, whether as strippers, escorts, working girls, maids or models. It is crucial that sex workers speak out about the current climate in the sex industry of fear, raids, deportation and arrests“ said Ava Caradonna from x:talk.
Ava Caradonna continued, “We also want to highlight the hypocrisy of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. Purchases from our industry can find their way into her expense claims, while at the same time she has been leading the Government’s attack on the sex industry.”
The Policing and Crime Bill has passed through the committee stage following two readings in the House of Commons. If passed, this Bill will further criminalise people in the sex industry in the UK, whether they work by CHOICE, CIRCUMSTANCE or COERCION. It criminalises clients, increases penalties for soliciting and imposes measures for forced rehabilitation. It is based on a lack of evidence about the sex industry and has been drafted without taking the views of sex workers and their organisations into account.
This event was been called by x:talk in partnership with the Sex Worker Open University and supported by Feminist Fightback.
photo’s from the action are available on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xtalk_project.
More info: email@example.com
Join a picket of Subway in London on 4 April in solidarity with Natalia Szymanska, a 19 year old Polish migrant worker employed by a Subway in Belfast, who was sacked in her fifth month of pregnancy on a dubious charge of being in breach of the company’s health and safety policy. She was sacked one month after telling her employers she was pregnant.
Meet 9.30 at 358 Oxford St for a rolling picket of three Subways
Feminist Fightback are also supporting a No Sweat picket of Primark on the same day. Meet at 11.30 near Primark on Oxford Street. More details www.nosweat.org.uk
Both actions open to all genders.
Discussing and organising our fight for women’s liberation – open to all those who want to learn, think and plan for grassroots feminist activism… Join us for workshops which identify the interconnections between oppressions and our struggles against them. Work together with other feminists to find ways to actually change the material conditions of women’s lives.
Workshops include: learning from feminist history/ sex workers’ rights/ challenging domestic violence/ international solidarity/ a woman’s place is in her union?/ reproductive freedoms/ rape and asylum/ community organising/ queer and trans politics/ prison abolition/ self-defence workshop/ feminists and the capitalist crisis/ films, stalls and campaign planning
Organised by a coalition of groups and individuals. Groups involved so far include: Anarcha-Fem Kollective, All African Women’s Group, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, English Collective of Prostitutes, Education Not for Sale Women, Feminist Activist Forum, Feminist Fightback, Left Women’s Network, London Coalition Against Poverty, Permanent Revolution, RMT Women’s Committee, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Women Against Rape, Workers’ Liberty.
This week ISS, one of the largest cleaning contractors on the Underground, attempted to break the strength of the cleaners on the Underground by picking off two reps. Clara Osagiede, the RMT Cleaners Grade Secretary for the underground was called into a disciplinary on trumped up charges of “gross misconduct”. Mary, another cleaners’ rep fought for reinstatement after bosses got rid of her. Both of these women have been courageous in their efforts to organise some of the most poorly paid, overworked, and exploited workers in this city, a group that even some in the RMT considered ‘too difficult to organise.’
On Thursday 8 January, 40 solidarity and RMT activists including members of Feminist Fightback picketed the ISS offices while the hearings took place. Chants were kept up for the two and a half hours that the women were in their hearings. Shouts of “Reinstate Mary! Don’t sack Clara!” brought some life to the cold January morning in one of the smartest areas in Greenwich.
Having been mentioned several times in Cath Elliot’s “The Great IUSW Con”, Feminist Fightback would like to reply to the accusations levelled at both the IUSW and Fightback’s support for sex workers’ rights. We have been saddened to read yet another abolitionist article which, rather than engage in thoughtful and honest debate, seeks to obscure the issues through factual inaccuracies and faulty logic.
Feminist Fightback supports the right of sex workers to organise amongst themselves to fight exploitation in the sex industry and transform the conditions under which they work. The International Union of Sex Workers is the only such organisation in the UK, as a result Fightback has supported this union and worked alongside it, just as it has a number of other trade unions on various different issues. Some of us have attended London IUSW meetings that are open to allies, while a few other Fightback members are themselves sex workers and members of the IUSW. Cath Elliot’s supposed ‘exposé’ hardly strikes us, then, as a piece of biting investigative journalism. We have no need of her advice to be careful of who we make alliances with for we are perfectly capable of investigating, analysing and making judgements about the political issues on which Feminist Fightback campaigns.
It is no secret that Douglas Fox, a male escort who also runs an agency, is a member of the IUSW. But Cath Elliot seems to think that by ‘uncovering’ this single fact she has discredited not only the entire union but also all arguments in favour of sex workers’ self organisation and decriminalisation. Through an absurd leap in logic Elliot moves from a discussion of Fox to conclude that the IUSW is ‘populated with pimps, agency owners and punters’. Unfortunately no other evidence for this is offered. Nor does Elliot offer any further arguments against sex workers’ right to unionise. In the absence of more sophisticated debate, we’d like to address Elliot’s accusations one by one.
It bears re-stating that because one member of the union runs an escort agency this does not mean that all members are ‘pimps’ and punters. In working with the IUSW we have met members in a variety of jobs in the sex industry including strippers, maids and men and women selling sex in brothels and working independently. Unlike other trade unions the IUSW finds itself in the position of seeking to organise workers who are effectively illegal, denied the right to work by laws which criminalise the conditions under which sex is sold. Decrimalisation is deemed a pre-condition to transforming working conditions and challenging the exploitation which takes place within the sex industry. For this reason union membership is open to others working for decriminalisation, including academics and researchers in this field.
Moreover, the GMB membership ensures confidentiality, for how else could a union seek to recruit illegal workers? It also seeks to challenge the fetishisation of ‘prostitution’ by actively recruiting from a variety of jobs within the sex industry, including, for example, security staff in strip clubs or receptionists in brothels. This is a common trade union approach – to organise all workers in a particular industry collectively rather than pick out a particular trade or role in isolation. (A comparison is the RMT union whose members include drivers, platform staff and cleaners on the London Underground.) We ask Cath Eliott what she would like the union to do? Demand that each individual out themselves? Specify exactly how much cock they suck, whether the do or do not do penetration in order to confirm for her whether they can truly be considered ‘authentic’ sex workers?
This concern for so-called authenticity is worrying. By implication it equates suffering with legitimacy. Does a woman who sells sex have to be addicted to drugs, working on the street and regularly beaten and raped in order to qualify to speak on behalf of sex workers? Can we not accept that a variety of experience exists in the sex industry? Can we not recognise that trade unionism is often about better off workers working alongside those experiencing the worst conditions, in order to improve the lives of all? In fact, we suggest that for Cath Elliot and other opponents of sex workers’ rights, the only ‘authentic’ sex worker is the sex worker who agrees with them.
Since Cath Elliot raised the issue of who, as feminists, we make alliances with, we would like to question the company she keeps by supporting the proposed government legislation to further criminalise sex work. The Policing and Crime Bill proposes to convict clients buying sex from anyone who is ‘controlled for gain’, strengthens police and local government powers to close down brothels, and further criminalises women working on the streets. (See the Safety First Coalition website for why this will make conditions more dangerous for sex workers). This legislation has been vocally supported by Cabinet ministers Harriet Harman and Jacqui Smith, politicians who Feminist Fightback would likewise urge Cath Elliot to think twice about allying herself with. Among the numerous attacks on working-class women that these supposed champions of women’s rights have voted through include Harman’s drastic cuts to single parent benefit in 1997 and Jacqui Smith’s support for a draconian immigration system which regularly deports women who have been the victims of sexual violence back to the very countries from which they have fled. If Cath Elliot wants to purge the feminist movement of women’s real enemies then she might do well to start with Smith and Harman.
Finally, we would like to raise the wider question of why so many wish to block open debate on the subject of sex work – be this through refusing to speak on platforms where the voices of those they disagree with will be heard, through misinformed smear campaigns against sex workers’ organisations, or through mythologising and false claims regarding trafficking (for the government’s almost total lack of actual information on sex trafficking see here). Why does such a fundamentalist attitude persist around feminist responses to sex work? Why can we not think through the complex issues? Why can we not try to deal with the messy reality of the situation rather than resort to myth-making and scare mongering?
Those who want to decide whether they support the IUSW can find out what this union is and stands for for themselves – by reading IUSW materials and website, talking to the GMB or listening to IUSW representatives when they speak at events. We in Feminist Fightback continue to discuss and debate with each other what we think about the multifaceted issue of sex work, We do not claim to agree with every individual member of the IUSW, any more than we agree with all the policies of the other trade unions whose members we work with. We do, however, believe that anyone who is serious about fighting violence and exploitation in the sex industry needs to side with the workers organising within it, rather than seeking to criminalise or deny such workers a voice.
In September Jacqui Smith announced at the Labour Party Conference that from October the government will be taking steps to clamp down on the sex industry in the UK. The new measures will give police new powers to prosecute those paying for sex, to shut down ‘brothels’ and force sex workers into compulsory rehabiliation.
She announced that the government would ‘start work to outlaw paying for sex with someone forced into prostitution at another’s will, or controlled for another’s gain’.
Of course, Feminist Fightback and Sex Workers’ Rights Activists also object to coerced labour and coerced sex, whether in the sex industry or otherwise. But Feminist Fightback views these proposals as an attack on the rights and safety of sex workers. Criminalising the clients of sex workers is dangerous for sex workers themselves. It means that male, female and trans-sex workers are forced underground and into clandestine work. This results in more reliance on third parties in order to arrange work, giving such third parties greater power, control and ability to exploit workers, reducing their safety and independence.
For street sex workers, already the most vulnerable group of sex workers, it can have even more serious consequences. Women are forced to take more risks. They have less time to decide whether or not to get into cars, are forced to work alone rather than in pairs or small groups and pushed into darker more isolated areas. Just two years ago in Ipswich we all witnessed the tragic consequences of zero tolerance policies on sex work.
Clients are an important source of information about exploitation and trafficking. The Poppy Project – a Home Office organisation working with victims of trafficking – estimate that 2% of their referrals come from clients. By criminalising clients further, this important source of ensuring safety for victims of trafficking comes under attack.
The Home Secretary further stated that, as part of the new policy, labour would ‘give councils and the police new powers to close down brothels and clamp down on exploitation’. There is extensive academic research that indicates that indoor sex work is much safer than selling sex outdoors. Current legislation states that more than one woman working in a property constitutes a brothel. Clamping down on ‘brothels’ will often attack women working independently in a safer environment where they are in control of their work and working safely.
There are many reasons that women choose to work in the sex industry. Often because women’s work is underpaid and undervalued, sometimes because it is the best possible alternative in a limited scope of choices or because it allows freedom and independence relative to other jobs available. Frequently it is a combination of these. Pushing sex work underground endangers all sex workers and obscures from view the very women these policies profess to help.
These measures are not about protecting women. They are likely to have the opposite effect. They are however wholly in line with a history of attempts to regulate sex workers’ bodies and women’s sexuality more generally. They avoid difficult questions about why, in a world of huge global disparities of wealth, women may come to the UK to work in sex work and how current immigration and border controls surrender some sex workers, and workers in many other industries, to exploitative and dangerous working practices.
Mayor’s Question Time had to be adjourned twice on Wednesday 16 October as activists protested Boris Johnson’s failure to follow up on his promise of a Living Wage for tube cleaners. The cleaners’ demands were shouted from the public gallery while more than thirty people demonstrated outside City Hall for the demands to be met.
Hundreds of commuter’s journeys were disrupted this morning as activists from Feminist Fightback added to the pressure of the strike by 800 RMT cleaners on the underground by ‘milkshaking’ escalators at key stations on the network.
Cleaners have been on strike since Tuesday evening after Transport for London failed to grant any concessions during the cleaners’ one day strike last week. London Underground cleaners – the majority of whom are women and people from ethnic minorities – have to struggle with low wages, no pension schemes or proper sick pay, contracts which offer as little as 12 days annual leave and the indignities of on-the-spot third party sackings.
Activists from Feminist Fightback planned the action to cause chaos in order to highlight the crucial role that London Underground cleaners – the majority of whom are women and migrant workers – play in keeping the underground running.
Clara Osagiede, RMT Cleaner’s Grade Secretary explains the situations cleaners have to deal with:
‘We have a member whose normal shift is 11pm-5am, he was thirsty on his shift, and so went to the kitchens to get some water. A representative of his contracting firms accosted him, asked what he was doing there, demanded his pass and then put it in his pocket and ordered him to get out. With no further explanation, the man was fired the next day.’
‘Sexual harassment of female cleaners by their managers is rife. Because their immigration status is uncertain they are unable to complain or they will face being sacked. Many of these women get very depressed.’
Laura Schwartz, member of NUS women’s committee and Feminist Fightback activist, states:
‘Keeping the underground clean is an essential task. As feminists we want to highlight the extent to which what is traditionally seen as ‘women’s work’ is so undervalued and are willing to take direct action to do so. Cleaning is vital work and women workers deserve fair pay and decent conditions.’
Last Friday the group invaded London Underground Headquarters. Armed with feather dusters, brooms and mops, they set about helping Transport for London ‘clean up their act’ until they were forcibly removed. Activists are targeting Transport for London to ensure that they do not pass the buck and instead take responsibility for the working conditions of the underground cleaners.
Today, we march alongside women on the Million Women Rise March with solidarity and respect. We are energised and excited to be a part of a rising tide of feminist activism. We are here to march and to show our resistance to the continued oppression and exploitation that the majority of women the world over continue to experience. We therefore think it is more important than ever to build a movement and develop a feminist politics that can fight for liberation and equality. Because of this, we think it is crucial for us to think hard about the kind of feminism that we want to work for…
We are feminists who want to link our fight for women rights with other movements for social justice and all struggles against capitalism and exploitation. We think as feminists it is crucial that we build alliances between these different struggles and to focus on the ways in which they interconnect. We do not think it is useful to prioritise one form of oppression over another, or to focus simply on women’s rights as separate from a wider system of exploitation. The privileging of gender (above race, sexuality or class) leads to the idea of women as eternal victims; to an ahistorical and static concept of patriarchy or male power; and to fruitless competition over who is ‘more oppressed’ according to different identity categories. This approach has been heavily criticised for taking the experience of white middle class women as standard and ignoring the experience of BME and working class women.
We understand all oppressions to be rooted within capitalism and the racist and patriarchal ideologies it produces. For this reason we do not think that real liberation for women can be achieved without also fighting capitalism. By capitalism we mean a system of power and control, which relies upon the exploitation of the working class and that puts profit before the needs people and the planet.
Violence and exploitation take many forms. It is of course crucial to oppose rape and sexual abuse but equally it must be understood that violence is not just perpetrated by individuals, but also by the state and in the name of big business. Immigration controls, sweatshop labour, poverty, police brutality, military imperialism and the denial of reproductive freedom are all forms of violence and must be named as such and opposed by all.
We support all women organising in their workplaces and against their bosses, be they sex workers, sweatshop workers or supermarket workers, teachers or train drivers, and we stand in solidarity with all women fighting for their rights- wherever they are in the world. For this reason we oppose the Million Women’s Rise definition of prostitution which links domestic abuse, rape and commercial sexual exploitation. For the thousands of women who work in the sex industry this demand is not only offensive but dangerous. To deny women the ability to choose to work in the sex industry is to deny their fight for better wages and working conditions. The demand to criminalise sex workers and the sex industry only serves to further the marginalisation and exploitation that sex workers currently face.
We want our campaigns and politics to empower women to fight their own exploitation rather than to depend on others for protection. We do not think a feminist movement should look to charitable organisations or ‘experts’ to bestow our rights upon us, but that we should build a movement involving as many women and men as possible to bring about liberation from below.