German-born entrepreneur Anette Pollner has lived in Britain for about 30 years. She fears that Brexit will lead to an unreasonable increase in bureaucracy affecting small companies. “It isn’t even possible to prepare for Brexit, as nobody knows what sort of break from the EU we are facing yet.”
Brexit threatens to hit the British economy, which could weaken public services that women need. Young women voted against Brexit, but they are now being offered a separation from the EU devised and promoted by men. “Everyone is only talking about big business, banks and trade in goods,” says small business owner Anette Pollner.
German-born Londoner Anette Pollner has a one-woman company but many professions. Firstly, she writes thrillers set in the City of London under the name Nyla Nox. “I’ve worked in the finance sector, so I know what it’s really like there,” she says. Pollner also does assorted translation work “but only from German to English. I’ve written exclusively in English since my twenties”.
She can also be seen on a 24h shopping channel modelling shapewear. “The best is the moment when the other model and I step into the frame, and you can see the orders start coming in straight away on a screen in the studio. 70-year-old women don’t want to see models in their twenties; they want to see us.” Pollner also works as an extra in films. Extras are in high demand in London. “Recently I had a whole day shoot in a castle in Kent. We danced and played English guests at a Bollywood wedding. Only a few of us were actually English, though – most were from Central or Eastern Europe,” she explains.
Pollner’s multidisciplinary company has been successful so far. Her main customers for translation work are German firms. She is paid in England for her modelling and film work. Accounting and administration procedures have been simple thanks to the EU internal market. But now, Britain’s exit from the EU – Brexit – is threatening Pollner’s livelihood: “Everyone only talks about big business, banks and the movement of goods. But what will happen to small-scale entrepreneurs in the service sector when Brexit hits?”
According to Pollner, it’s impossible to prepare for Brexit. There are only six months left until Britain’s exit from the EU, but nothing is known for certain about the terms of Brexit. The situation is difficult from the small-scale entrepreneur’s point of view: “If I stay in the UK, my translation work will become more difficult. But if I leave, I won’t be able to continue my modelling and acting work”. Running two separate companies is also not a realistic option: according to Pollner, the administrative burden would be far too much for one person to manage.
Added to this is the fear of how Brexit will affect EU citizens in the UK. The Prime Minister Theresa May has given assurances that EU citizens’ rights will be respected. Nevertheless, the Conservative government has given no legally binding or otherwise concrete guarantees of this. Pollner’s circle of friends includes other women who own SMEs, who are equally horrified by the approaching Brexit. “Women who run companies in the service sector are dependent on revenue from these companies. Separation from the EU has increased uncertainty,” she says.
The effect of Brexit on women is a question that has hardly been discussed in Britain. Many assume that exiting the EU is a gender-neutral matter – if they think about it at all. However, financial and political decisions often affect men and women differently on average. “Women already make less on average than men. If PM May’s Brexit plan is carried out, women’s income will decrease by £1,200 (1,350€) a year,” says Rachel Franklin, who works at In Facts, a company compiling facts against Brexit. Franklin also runs the women’s section of the People’s Vote collective, which is advocating for a second referendum. “Women are now more doubtful about Brexit. They are worried about its impact on the family finances. Only 13% believe that the negotiations will result in a good withdrawal agreement.”
Researcher Mary-Ann Stephenson agrees that the consequences of Brexit will, on average, be different for women and men and that women may suffer more. “Women are usually more dependent on public services than men,” says Stephenson, who works for the Women’s Budget Group, an independent network mapping the gendered impact of UK government policies. The labour market in the UK is also differentiated according to gender, with women typically doing different work from men. In addition to this, women typically have primary responsibility for childcare, so they are not as free to move in search of work as men. “Especially in poorer families, women have the primary responsibility for the family finances. Women will even give up their own food so that their children can have enough,” says Stephenson, who spoke in September at the Gender and Brexit conference organised by the UK in a Changing Europe research unit.
Prime Minister Theresa May is in charge of the Brexit negotiations, but the whole project of exiting the EU has otherwise been very male-dominated. Brexit ultimately derives from the internal conflicts of the male-dominated Conservative party – power struggles between men, then. The loudest and most visible figures in the Brexit camp have all been men. The British negotiation team, too, is heavily male. Stephenson is, therefore, calling for more women at the negotiating table. The government should also assess the gendered impact of Brexit. “We should already be preparing for the post-Brexit shock by investing in the infrastructure of social services and in housing,” she says.
When the UK voted on the future of its relationship with the EU in June 2016, young women were the staunchest supporters of the EU. A full 80% of women aged 18-24 who voted, voted in favour of EU membership. Now women are being offered a very male Brexit. The most foolhardy would leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, thereby weakening employees’ and consumers’ rights. Ethnic minority women have suffered most from austerity – the same may be ahead after Brexit. Faiza Shaheen, the director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, which is close to the Labour party, believes that Brexit has already increased inequality in Britain. “Officials only have time to concentrate on Brexit, which has meant that schools and public healthcare have been neglected,” Shaheen said at the Gender & Brexit event.
The treatment of immigrants, too, has been apparently gender-neutral. In practice, however, it may be more difficult for women from EU countries to get proof of permanent residence than for men. This particularly affects stay-at-home mums who are not in employment, as they do not have payslips or other necessary documentation. “If you have not been financially active, it may be difficult to prove your right to remain,” said Swee Leng Harris, director of the Legal Education Foundation, which focuses on matters relating to the rule of law, at the Gender & Brexit event.
What happens after Brexit is also causing concern. In the future, the austerity-happy British government could, for example, weaken the rights of women on maternity leave or of part-time workers without the interference of EU law. “The EU has never been a feminist project, but there are a lot of feminists working there,” says Stephenson.
Entrepreneur Anette Pollner knows that the future is uncertain, but she isn’t letting herself be daunted. She has lived in the UK for thirty years and feels that it is her home. Work has sometimes taken her to Thailand, among other places, but she has always returned to London. “I want to stay in this country, and I am ready to fight”.🔷
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(This piece was originally written by Annamari Sipilä and published in the Helsingin Sanomat. It was translated into English by Anna Boyer.)