The misogyny at the heart of the government’s self-employed support scheme

Photo credit: Ketut Subiyanto

The gaps in the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) are pushing an estimated two million people in this country towards financial hardship. A large proportion of those missing out on government support are women – and that’s no accident. There is deeply rooted misogyny at the heart of SEISS.

The cost of caring

The SEISS provides support to self-employed people based on their average earnings over the three years up to April 2019. Therefore anyone who took time off to have a baby, look after a child or care for other family members before 2019 loses out and receives less support. When they submit their earnings calculations, they can’t exempt the time they took away from work to provide this vital unpaid care.

According to the Office for National Statistics, women perform 70% of unpaid care work, so the people penalised by this rule are overwhelmingly likely to be women.

The motherhood penalty

A huge number of mothers are self-employed, not by choice, but because they were forced out of the workplace. Some 54,000 women lose their jobs in the UK every year because of maternity discrimination – and that figure doesn’t include those who quit their jobs because of toxic work environments or employers who refuse to be flexible when it comes to the demands of childcare. For many women trying to balance the importance of caring for their families with the necessity of earning money, self-employment is the only option. It’s no wonder, then, that one in ten mothers who return to work after their maternity leave do so in a self-employed capacity.

My story

I never wanted to become self-employed. I was quite happy with the security of an employed job, a pension and holiday/sick pay.

When I had my first child, everything changed. The stable job I thought I had was no longer an option. In September 2018 I found myself with no choice but to become self-employed. And for the last two years, I have been working hard to build up an income as a sole trader, and earning the same money that I had in full-time employment while working part-time hours around the needs of my child. Everything was going well.

Then coronavirus hit. My clients had to close their doors, couldn’t make any money and therefore couldn’t pay me. I was terrified. How would I pay my mortgage and look after my daughter if my income suddenly disappeared? When the SEISS was announced, I felt enormous relief that I would be protected after all. Then we learned the truth. My earnings for 2019/20 would be discounted completely. Only the first year when I became self-employed, 2018/19, would be taken into account. I had been employed for a large percentage of that year, but actually my self-employed earnings were still greater than my earnings from employment – I thought I was safe.

However, it turned out that I was considered to be ineligible for the SEISS because I had received Statutory Maternity Pay during 2018. That money was counted alongside my employed earnings, which meant that slightly less than 50% of my income (by just £800) had come from self-employment.

My maternity pay was not income from employment. It was a benefit paid by the government to help me care for a newborn baby. I had to return to work after just three months, to try and build a new business while caring for my child.

I can’t imagine how hard life would have been if I’d had to return to work even sooner, but if I had started my self-employment just two months earlier I would have received less Statutory Maternity Pay and would therefore be eligible for SEISS now. I have been directly penalised for taking time off work to care for my child.

This is only the beginning

The charity Pregnant Then Screwed has been highlighting the disproportionate impact on women of this pandemic and has even taken the Chancellor to court over the discriminatory nature of the SEISS.

During the Backbench Business Committee debate on the SEISS on 17th September, Tommy Sheppard, SNP MP for Edinburgh East, referred to the reduced or absent support for mothers and remarked that it was “a blatant discrimination against female self-employed workers in this country.”

And it isn’t only self-employed women who are suffering disproportionately in the current climate. A study by PwC in May 2020 found that 78% of those who had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic were women. The Institute for Fiscal Studies also found that mothers are 47% more likely to be pushed out of work than fathers.

When Boris Johnson casually remarked that employers would have to be understanding about the need for parents to juggle family duties with their workload, he displayed a shocking ignorance of the scale of discrimination that women face in the workplace.

As we prepare for a potential second spike of coronavirus cases, the situation is only going to get worse for women, particularly mothers. And not only is the government refusing to help, but they appear to be engineering it this way.

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