European Commission: Getting More Women to Work in Transport?

Jean-Louis Colson (on the right of the photo) from DG-MOVE – the European Commission’s Directorate General on transport – outlined the Commission’s work on women and transport, and the consultation it is currently running.

For the Commission, the main ‘challenge’ is that not enough women work in transport. Only 22% of transport workers are women, across all 28 EU member stations (the Commission’s document states that “22% of women work in the transport sector” but this is incorrect; the statistic is as I give it here). It is even more unbalanced in certain transport sectors: road and rail workforces are only 14% women; air transport is a bit better, with 38% women. Jobs within transport are also unbalanced: in the rail industry, 60% of human resources staff are women, but only 3% of drivers.

The Commission wants a better gender balance. This is, or at least appears to be, a very laudable aim. However, the Commission’s motivations seem more ominous:

  • Transport in Europe faces a labour shortage over the next 10-15 years, as a third of its current workforce is over 50 years of age. Rather than improving wages and conditions to attract more workers, the Commission thinks that recruiting more women will fill the gap.
  • Menacingly, M. Colson said that if employers can not recruit from within the EU, they will look outside. In other words, ‘If we don’t hire women, we’ll hire foreigners’. The Commission seems to be attempting to pit EU women against migrant workers in a ‘race to the bottom’ aiming to set the two groups against each other, drive down wages and conditions and fuel xenophobia.
  • Apparently, women workers bring qualities that men don’t. The example given was that women truck drivers have fewer accidents and show better customer care. 

DG-MOVE is carrying out two studies: one, to analyse the benefits of employing more women in transport eg. productivity; the other, on how to make transport work more attractive to women.

Sometimes, it is helpful to have an honest account from the other side of the class divide. Challenged by ETF Women’s Committee members, M Colson said yes, we do see this from the employers’ point of view and highlight the benefits to them of employing more women. Yes, transport working conditions are profit-driven. That’s capitalism: that’s the economic system we live under.

DG-MOVE seems unwilling to consider the real issues facing women workers – it just wants to make a ‘business case’. Women increase productivity. M Colton mentioned that he considers some of the working practices on Europe’s docks to be ‘old-fashioned’. In fact, as our representative of women dockers pointed out, these practices – dock worker registration schemes that provide reliable work and stop the spread of casualisation – protect workers. So it seems as though DG-MOVE and the Commission may use this consultation on women and transport as a pretext to attack the very working practices that protect us.

Horizontal issues?

DG-MOVE will not consider what the Commission calls ‘horizontal issues’ – those issues which exist in other sectors as well. This apparently prevents it taking action about the gender pay gap, or sexual harassment, or childcare, or anything else that women in other industries experience too. These will be dealt with by other departments, such as DG-JUST. I raised the impact of ticket office closures oin women workers, removing women’s jobs and putting women in the firing line of abuse from angry passengers. That’s happening in all areas of customer services, apparently: it’s a ‘horizontal’ issue not a transport issue. Similarly, transport cleaners’ working conditions are not transport issues: they are cross-industry, horizontal, cleaners’ issues.

By taking this position, the Commission prevents women transport workers raising the very issues that affect us most! Just because these issues exist in other industries too, that does not mean that they are not transport workers’ issues. Many of them have transport-specific aspects. For example, the gender pay gap in the transport industry arises because well-paid jobs (such as train drivers) are predominantly done by men, whereas poorly-paid jobs (such as contract cleaners) are done mainly by women. Moreover, by eliminating these issues from discussion, the Commission leaves DG-MOVE with very little it can address within such a narrow remit. It becomes a pretext to concentrate on promoting transport work to women, a public-relations exercise which does not address the real obstacles to women’s transport work.

But, I argued, how can we promote transport work to women if it does not deserve it? Are we seriously going to say “Come and be a London Underground cleaner – great job!” when we know it is not? Are we going to pretend that it is easy to balance transport work with caring responsibilities when we know that it is not? No. If the EU is serious about achieving a more gender-balanced workforce, then it does not need an advertising campaign, it needs to enforce serious improvements in working conditions. As ETF’s Cristina Tilling put it, ‘If working conditions don’t change, then nothing changes.’ 

Consulting on women and transport

Having held a seminar in April, DG-MOVE is now running a consultation. Its tone and structure is very much about how we can serve employers. Women workers seem to be an afterthought. Nevertheless, it is important for unions to have an input so that workers’ interests are represented. 

As you can see from the consultation document, the Commission is asking nine questions. The ETF Women’s Committee responses are roughly as follows:

  1. Yes.
  2. The European Commission must gather the statistics itself. That’s its job!
  3. We have policies on equal pay, work-life balance, violence against women etc.
  4. See our workplans and reports.
  5. Strange question. All of them.
  6. Obstacles: Employers. Sexism. Discrimination.
  7. Mixed opinions, for and against. Consensus that active measures and equality policies are more important.
  8. Unions have a very important role. They must be freed from restrictive legislation.
  9. Plenty.

The deadline for the consultation is 31 October (with a grace period until 4 November). It is essential that trade unions, as well as the ETF, submit responses. Certainly, employers will be sending in their views!

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