Let’s close the equality gap with a new social contract and put women at the centre of recovery plans

International Women’s Day 2021 will not be a day of celebration for the majority of women. The negative impacts of the global pandemic over the last year have fallen on women’s shoulders.

It will however be a day of determination and the renewal of our commitment to fight for a new social contract that ensures gender equality is central to recovery and resilience.

Workers have five demands to secure a New Social Contract and in each of them women must be front and centre. Jobs — climate-friendly jobs; Rights for all in non-violent working environments; Universal social protection; Equality of income and equal workforce participation and Inclusion in a peaceful democratic and sustainable future.


With almost nearly 50% of households in the latest ITUC Frontline poll saying they have lost jobs or working hours because of the pandemic, investment in jobs must be at the heart of a recovery. This is even more import for women who are underrepresented in the labour market.

To ensure equal participation for women, investment in care — health care, aged care, child-care and education — is essential. This will both ensure quality jobs, for those courageous essential workers in health and services, the majority of whom are women and will lift the burden of care allowing women to participate in other areas of the economy.

Investing in the care economy, in particular, has been shown to be beneficial in terms of direct job creation, and it has strong multiplier effects in terms of indirect job creation — largely due to the role that care services have in enabling work-life balance and removing barriers to women’s participation in the labour market.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has estimated that spending an additional 3.5% of GDP in the care economy would lead to the creation of 269 million extra jobs by 2030 (compared to 2015), and would allow countries to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals targets for health and education. ITUC analysis has also shown that if an extra 2% of GDP were invested in the health and care sector within developing economies it would generate increases in overall employment ranging from 1.2% to 3.2%, depending on the country.


Jobs must be good jobs with a guarantee of fundamental rights and protections. We need to repair a broken labour market where women make up the majority of informal jobs and the majority of the growing numbers of insecure, low paid jobs even in the formal economy.

The despair of women who struggle with informal and/or insecure work can only be remedied with a floor of rights and protections for all workers irrespective of their employment arrangements.

These rights are laid out in the ILO Centenary Declaration, and International Women’s day is the day to remind both employers and governments of their responsibilities to uphold women’s rights in the 21st century.

Fundamental Rights. Freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, freedom from discrimination and modern slavery through forced and child labour — these are the basic tenets of rights at work.

Occupational health and safety. This must be recognised as a fundamental right. Who can forget the spectre of women health workers forced to care for sick and dying victims of COVID-19 without adequate protection? Governments must take responsibility for women’s safety including the right to non-violent workplaces and employers must be held to account.

Adequate minimum wages. Wages must be living wages or based on evidence such that they allow women to live with dignity. In the informal economy, we need the guarantee of minimum incomes.

Maximum hours of work. To ensure some control over working hours as remote or home base work escalates, there must be a maximum number of hours that a person can work. It is also an important layer of protection for women working in supply chains to be able to say no to forced overtime without fear of retribution.

Together these rights outlined in the ILO Centenary Declaration form the labour protection floor, which is a test of whether people or de-humanising exploitation sit at the centre of today’s business practices. It is the 21st-century test of humanity which we cannot be allowed to fail.

Universal Social Protection

It defies rationality that the world has increased its wealth seven times over in just the last three decades but 75% of the worlds people have little or no social protection and the majority are women. Only social protection with income support at the centre can with robust services in health, aged care, child-care and education ensure human resilience against family, national or global shocks. And a global social protection fund is a priority if we are to close the funding gap in the poorest countries that have no social protection. This is a base test of our humanity.


Covid-19 has exposed the despair created by income inequality and the discrimination of exclusion whether of gender or race racial. Migrant workers, of whom the majority are women, have suffered this and more when simply discarded by nations that they were helping are stranded without work or social protection.

Equal labour force participation, collective bargaining, minimum living wages and universal social protection are the solutions to narrow the equality gap. They are not optional.

Our world has turned a blind eye to discrimination and distributional inequality and women have been the losers. Exploitation and inequality as a basis of the global economy must end.

Women need a new social contract that cannot be realised if gender equality is not a priority. The world’s recovery and resilience from Covid-19 depends on it.



General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.

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Sharan Burrow

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.