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The Brexit effect on women

By Luisella Seveso

The story has come to an end, or at least it is beginning to define in more precise terms what has been a real trauma for the European Union: Great Britain’s exit from the community after 28 years. It is the first time that at its people’s will – in this case, expressed through a referendum in 2016 – a state has left the group of 27 member states. The withdrawal process therefore began in 2017 and was formalized at 11 pm on January 31, 2020. On December 31, 2020, the transition period during which the Union and Great Britain have attempted to negotiate their future relations expires. But it was only on Christmas Eve, 2020, that the government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally reached an agreement in this respect with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von Der Leyen.

ENWE: Lucia Tajoli, Full Professor of Economic Policy at the Politecnico di Milano: from many quarters it is said that women, and in particular British women, will suffer the negative effects of Brexit more, especially in the workplace. How?

Lucia Tajoli: It is true, and the negative effect of Brexit on women can manifest in different ways and for different reasons. First of all, it is important to remember that the European Union legislation is among the most advanced in the world in terms of protecting women’s rights, providing guarantees for maternity leave, requiring equal work and salary treatment, protection against violence, etc.

The European rules are transposed into the national laws of member countries, but when the United Kingdom leaves the EU, there will be no more obligations in this sense, the legislation could be changed, and the level of protection could decrease. No drastic changes are expected in a country like the United Kingdom, but we have seen in recent years that some setbacks in the protection of rights are unfortunately possible, and therefore the EU exit could reduce some guarantees.

Secondly, the vast majority of economists predict Brexit to have negative effects on the UK economy, with a possible reduction in employment and GDP. Even in other crises, experience has shown that when the economic situation worsens, those who pay the consequences are mainly women: when there are job cuts, female employment is especially affected. The risk is higher if, post-Brexit, the government decides to face the economic difficulties by cutting public spending and reducing spending on social policies. On the one hand, this will increase the family workload for women; on the other hand, it could lead to job losses in sectors where female employment incidence is relatively high.

How can the Deal/No deal transition change things?

With a trade deal between the EU and the UK, which was initiated in extremis, the expected economic effects for the United Kingdom should be less severe, and therefore the consequences for women could also be less severe. Obviously, a lot depends on the type of agreement that will be finalized, and we have been teetering on this until the last moment. In any case, one of the fundamental points for the UK’s EU exit is precisely to increase the autonomy of the United Kingdom in defining its own rules on economic matters and on the labor market. One of Brexit’s biggest problems is exactly that, even in the presence of an agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU, the UK will abandon the so-called acquis communitaire, the system of common European rules, generating considerable uncertainty in many economic and social areas. So, the risk of less protection for women could also exist with an agreement.

The new British immigration rules favor highly skilled workers. Could this also affect women?

Certainly, the constraints on immigration can negatively affect domestic employers and employees, particularly if they are women. Tasks typically considered “feminine”, such as household and people care will be performed more by employers, making it even more difficult to work demanding jobs outside the home and reducing the chances of external careers. On the other hand, it is known that global south countries from which the majority of migrants in Europe come, education is less accessible for women, compared to men. Therefore, if immigration to the UK is only allowed to qualified personnel, the number of women who can legally emigrate to this country will certainly be reduced, and it will only be a fraction of male immigrants.

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