Sisters standing strong - highlights from TUC Women's Conference 2020

By Alice Sorby, Employment Relations Advisor Midwifery TUC Women Pay and Agenda For Change

TUC Women's Conference is always one of my highlights of the trade union year. Timed to coincide with International Women’s Day there is always a really special atmosphere as trade union activists come together to share our experiences both good and bad.

This year's theme was 'Sisters standing strong', combined with the International Women's Day theme of 'Each for equal' the first motion of the conference on equal pay was apt. In the NHS the Job Evaluation Scheme underpins the entire Agenda for Change pay structure and ensures equal pay for work of equal value. Our research into job evaluation processes in NHS trusts last year however found that there is widespread poor practice in England. Particularly for MSWs at band 2, the lowest paid members of staff. A stark reminder that even in sectors where we have robust job evaluation structures, we must not rest on our laurels.

All the RCM delegates had the chance to speak this year and despite some nerves (from me mainly!) we did ourselves proud. We supported motions from our sister health unions, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, the College of Podiatry on staff delaying using the toilet ‘dying for a wee’ and the British Dietetic Association on charging migrant women for maternity care.

The first RCM motion was 'women in the criminal justice system’. In 2018 in England, 82 per cent of women sentenced to prison had committed a non-violent crime and 62 per cent were serving a sentence of six months or less. Female offenders are often amongst the most vulnerable and have complex needs. Substance misuse, mental health problems and homelessness are not uncommon. Pregnant women in prison are more likely to book late for antenatal care or have their care disrupted, not receive adequate food and nutrition during pregnancy and postpartum, and have a premature or small-for-dates baby.

Pregnancy and new motherhood is a period of time where the mother-infant bond is established and allowed to flourish. Separation of mothers from their babies is exceptionally distressing for women and can affect their mental health and wellbeing in prison, it can also have lasting effects on their children. The RCM’s motion called for a specific Prison Service Instruction to be developed for perinatal women, taking a First 1001 days approach and for all UK women’s prisons to implement the Birth Companions’ Birth Charter in full and without delay. The motion past.

Our second motion ‘better financial support for student midwives’ highlighted the financial hardship of student midwives who are facing up to £27,000 debt from tuition fees alone. The government has now said it will provide £5000 per year to midwifery students, but this is not likely to be nearly enough. Tuition fees will remain and £5000 it is considerably less than the average maintenance loan taken by midwifery students, which often doesn’t even cover living costs as it is. Our motion called for an urgent review of financial support for student midwives and a commitment to increase support. This motion was also past.

As we make our way home from the conference, I think we all feel very proud of the amazing women in our movement, reinvigorated to fight for our members and a little ready for an early night!