‘Operation Yellowhammer’ leak: what does it mean for women?

Date Posted: Monday 19th August 2019

Analysing the gendered impact of a no deal Brexit

BrexitNo dealPublic Services

This weekend leaked government documents in The Sunday Times set out the short-term consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. From traffic to food prices to civil unrest, the ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ document exposes the short-term chaos awaiting the UK if we leave the European Union without a deal on 31st October 2019.

What was not leaked, if it exists at all, was an assessment of the differential impact this economic and social disruption will have on women and other marginalised groups. In fact, since 2016, the government has duly failed to publish analysis of the ways in which different Brexit options will impact women. For particularly the poorest and most marginalised women, ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ means job losses, cuts to services, squeezed family budgets and reduced legal protections.

What does ‘no deal’ Brexit mean?

There’s a common misconception that ‘no deal’ means a maintenance of the status quo, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Leaving the EU without a deal is the most disruptive form of Brexit imaginable. Currently we benefit from 57% of our exports and 66% of our imports negotiated under our status as an EU member state.

Leaving without a deal means – whether by intention or default – abruptly and acrimoniously cutting all ties with European trade and legal frameworks overnight on 31st October. The UK will be forced to trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. This means increased tariff and non-tariff delays and costs leading to decreased confidence, less foreign direct investment (FDI) and ultimately, the UK economy will be 8% smaller than it would have otherwise been by 2033 and 750,000 job losses will be caused.

What does this mean for women and the economy?

Already, leaving the EU is costing the public purse more than staying – the government has spent billions preparing for no deal while the economy is already 2-2.5% smaller than it would have been. All signs point to a ‘no deal’ induced recession. This means job losses and, if the government responds in the same way it did in 2010, more sexist public service cuts.

Our work highlights the drastically disproportionate impact austerity has already had on, particularly, disabled women and BME women because they rely more on public services and social security for jobs, services and income. The economic decline has already begun and while employment is high, so too are precarious forms of work such as zero-hour contracts (53.6% are taken up by women) and part time (73%) or temporary (52%) work. Women already make up the majority of those living in in-work poverty (45% of single parents – 90% of which are women – are living in poverty) and are more vulnerable to job loss or increased precarity during a recession.

Operation Yellowhammer’ documents also suggest more demand and delayed supplies will lead to an increase in prices of food and fuel. Increased cost of living disproportionately affects women in low income households because they are responsible for household budgets and are most likely to go without warmth or food in order to feed and clothe their families.

Threat of rights repeal

In the event of a no deal Brexit, the UK government would suddenly be in a hurry to secure trade deals with non-EU countries. Decreased corporation taxes and workers’ protections could easily be the price to pay to make the UK an attractive trade partner.

This puts women in double jeopardy because we will also lose legal protections and accountability enshrined in EU directives promoting gender equality including equal pay for equal work, flexible working rights, maternity working rights, shared parental leave as well as anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws. So, for example a pregnant woman may be at higher risk of redundancy if the firm she works for is struggling due to the recession following Brexit. And, without the Pregnant Workers Directive to protect her from this discrimination she will have less recourse to justice. This would also be illegal under the Equalities Act 2010 but there is nothing to stop the government repealing this legislation and genuine fear that they might do so in order to cut ‘red tape.’

The same can be said for the NHS where there is real concern that trade deals will mean opening procurement out to more private bidders. With women making up 77% of NHS staff and disproportionately relying on its services for maternity and mental health, this is another public service where underfunding, understaffing and increased privatisation threatens women’s livelihoods.

More uncertainty, less control

Much like the economic impact of no deal then, it is now becoming clearer that it is not so much the immediate impact of a no deal that ought to be of gravest concern but the gradual deterioration of the welfare state and social protections to the detriment of women and minority groups. Far from taking back control ‘no deal’ will make us vulnerable to repeal of rights, standards and protections.

The public are exhausted and susceptible to the idea that ‘no deal’ heralds the end of Brexit. In reality, it would only be the beginning of years of wrangling over every detail of our economic and political ‘constitution.’  Over three years on from the referendum we have to ask, did anyone really vote for this?

This blog precedes forthcoming Women’s Budget Group analysis about the disproportionate impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit on women.  

By Jenna Norman, Public Affairs Officer, Women's Budget Group