Today I met a family where the daughter, just 12 years old, has lived in 19 different housing projects over her short life.
She has moved frequently because her mother has suffered at the hands of two abusive partners, and lost her job because of this. The girl’s little brother, at nine years old, “sees” the man who used to make his mum cry in every dark alley, and around every corner, despite knowing he doesn’t live in the city any more. Far from being an atypical set of circumstances, this story is very familiar to workers who, like me, work in the domestic abuse sector in the UK.
In January, Devon County Council proposed a 100% cut to its domestic violence service provision. Pressure from anti cuts groups reduced this to a still brutal 42% across the whole sector in the county. Across the country, this level of cuts has now become common.
Eight domestic violence services nationally still face 100% cuts in funding in 2011-2012, and a further 20 services face between 40% and 99% cuts.
Where cuts are lower, for example, in Sheffield, where I work, other issues underlie the statistics. Outreach services here in the Domestic Abuse Floating Support Service (DAFSS) were put out for tender, and the winning bid was from a large housing association with no previous experience working with survivors or victims of domestic abuse. The tender that won did so due to a plan to reduce each member of staff’s annual pay pay by £7k to around £16k and increase the workload twofold over existing targets.
I work as a children’s support worker in an independent women’s refuge in South Yorkshire, which is funded through the local authority’s “Supporting People” funding, but with charitable status. It therefore falls into the “Third Sector”. I help families like the one above to rehabilitate and move on after abuse, where children have been involved, and to rebuild family relationships.
The service, like many, is both undervalued and vital, and heavily at risk of losing its funding (which is separate from the refuge it is managed by, and from entirely charity funders such as Comic Relief and Children in Need, unlike the refuge), due to pressure on the entire sector.
Like many small charitable sector workplaces, we have a small number of staff (fewer than 20), who are nearly all part-time workers.
Our pay and conditions are very good for what can broadly considered the “social care” sector. But with these cuts now coming through hard and fast in the sector, it seems as if the bubble, in which society thought this was a sector that would never be attacked, has burst.
Who could justify putting “battered” women out on the street? How could services that keep children out of abusive homes be obliterated like this? They can and will be, all in the name of the “big society”. This is why it is time for a culture change in the sector, and many like it.
Vital service provisions which have, for whatever reason, always been in the charitable and not the public sector, and therefore have long had an unorganised workforce, must now be organised.
In this column I will be diarising my attempts to change this culture, and organise the entirely female workforce at the refuge.
As we go to press I will be meeting with a regional union officer tomorrow, and then with the staff to discuss the idea of union recognition straight after. There are many hurdles (mostly in the minds of the staff and managers) that will need to be overcome, but this organisation is vital, and overdue.
We must begin to organise women workers in this sector — a sector with a huge political backdrop, but having sprung out of the radical feminist movement of the 1970s, one with little (if any) class content.
Domestic abuse is, sadly, a class issue. When poverty soars, so do reports of domestic abuse. The working class must organise and educate to overcome both the oppression that causes this poverty, and the oppression of women (and men) who suffer from domestic abuse because of it.
Next time: Raising union consciousness in the voluntary sector, and working with a voluntary management board.