Thomas Cook's Collapse Shows Saving Women's Jobs Is Not A Priority For This Government

As governments battle to protect men’s jobs in manufacturing and steel, there's eerie silence over the 6,000-odd women's jobs lost at the travel group, Sophie Walker writes.
Thomas Cook
Thomas Cook

What do holiday firms and high street retailers have in common? I’ll give you a clue. It’s the opposite of banks and carmakers – and it’s a riddle that lies at the heart of government economic policy.

The first group employs more women than men. It contains businesses that are going bust at high speed. And those two things are linked.

Today’s news that Thomas Cook has collapsed is in fact also the news that 6,480 women are looking at losing their jobs – of the holiday firm’s 9,000 UK staff, 72 percent are women. The blow comes just two weeks after the latest high street update: thousands more UK shops are now standing empty, which research by the RSA has found to mean that 75,000 women’s jobs have disappeared in the last seven years as a result.

Of course, these are not the only sectors where technology and globalisation are changing the nature of work. But where governments tie themselves in knots to protect and fret over men’s jobs in car-making and steel industries, there’s an eerie silence today. No public hand-wringing or backdoor bargaining. In fact Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned of the ’moral hazard” of bailing out companies in case others should face financial difficulties.

Hang on a minute.

Let’s think back to 2008. The financial crisis. Banks around the world, directed by the business decisions of their “Masters of the Universe”, teeter on the brink of collapse, a result of a culture of risk-taking and portfolios packaged around profitability models that no-one could quite work out. Models that turned out to be epic failures.

Governments constructed mainly of men took the decision to prop up a sector dominated by men’s jobs. And so was born the culture of austerity: dramatic cuts to public spending as taxpayers’ contributions were channelled instead into the financial sector. No-one was talking then about the moral hazard of asking the poorest people to pay for the mistakes of some of the wealthiest. Why not? Because the poorest are always women – funnelled via sexist career advice and societal ideas of primary carers into work that pays less and is valued less. Parliamentary research illuminated the situation fully when it revealed in 2017 that women paid for 86 percent of the burden of austerity since 2010.

But an economy this lopsided is not an economy that can function. Thomas Cook’s demise should be a wake-up call for decision-makers that our economy is becoming dangerously skewed to an extent that threatens future growth and prosperity for us all. Regular investments in male-dominated workplaces will do little to solve the economic challenges facing the country so long as sectors that are the largest employers of women are time and again neglected. Government ministers have spoken publicly about their concerns about a skills gap in the population and the slow productivity that dogs the UK even as successive chancellors continue to pump money into physical infrastructure (construction), while taking it out of social infrastructure (care.)

If the UK is to face an uncertain economic future with a workforce that is primed and ready, government must start investing in and supporting the jobs on which young women rely, as well as the jobs it relies on women to do.

At Young Women’s Trust, we are working with young women so they can build their own vision of happy and purposeful activity; find opportunities outside of tired career stereotypes; live in a society that values the unpaid work it relies upon women to do; and be valued contributors in respectful, equal workplaces. Our research has found that just 23% of young women who visited a jobcentre in the previous 12 months said Jobcentre Plus had helped them to find work, compared with 43% of young men. More than half of young women said they found the experience humiliating. This doesn’t bode well for the young women who are losing their jobs at Thomas Cook this week, or those who continue to lose their jobs in the retail sector.

It’s party conference season. Maybe instead of arguing over what form of Brexit is best, political parties could start to think about what form of economic investment will see us through the turbulence that’s coming down the line. There’s a pool of talent and energy just waiting to be tapped. The government that understands this can create the true Masters – and Mistresses – of the next Universe.

Sophie Walker is CEO of the Young Women’s Trust