We can applaud the women workers on the pandemic frontline but we also owe them the recognition of equal pay
COVID-19 is exposing the enormous inequality for women in work.
With women making up 70% of the global health and social care workforce and 58.6% of that of the service sector, the pandemic spotlight is uncovering the wage and safety divide for female-dominated occupations.
Workers on the frontlines include women in health and community care, women in food production and supermarkets, women in call-centres relaying critical information and women in online administration who are all in relatively low paid jobs. Occupational health and safety have too often been denied for these vital workers who we are relying on for our own safety and sustenance.
The same applies to all areas of care; healthcare, aged care, childcare, education and more; our societies can’t function without these workers. As we clap our hands in solidarity and acclaim from our windows and balconies in an amazing act of gratitude we must note that the world owes them the recognition of equal pay.
There should also be a recognition that women do three times as much unpaid care work as men. And unless we invest in jobs and decent work in care during the reconstruction of our economies then again we will continue to exploit women and deepen massive inequality.
The majority of domestic workers are still in informal work and have already lost their jobs with no social protection and therefore no income support to fall back on. Worse still are the many migrant workers with no home, no family, no income who are trapped in a foreign country.
The only country in the world to include migrant workers on equal terms in the income support and access to health measures provided by any government at this time is Portugal.
Women make up the majority of the working poor worldwide and millions are now being thrown back into dire poverty with the immediate risk of destitution or starvation and left without any social protection.
Jamila Hussein a 26 years old with a tea kiosk in Mogadishu says, “People are no longer coming to our kiosk to buy tea or coffee since Coronavirus started. I am the breadwinner for my family of 9 (father, mother and 7 siblings), feeding them from what I earn after selling tea or coffee. Nonetheless, I cook the tea every morning, but no one comes to my kiosk. Yesterday I did not earn even one (1) shilling, I went home empty-handed”.
Female labour force participation was already declining in many parts of the world but is set to decline even more rapidly if not addressed through recovery and underemployment is also set to increase.
We also have to recognise and address the threats of violence experienced by women at work and at home.
While the majority of the population express gratitude for those going to work to support our lives, frontline services are often the first line of attack for the fear and anxiety of people who are ill or facing a lack of food supply or other essential support.
And the increase in domestic violence, with people being confined with violent partners, or a combination of confinement and economic tensions resulting in domestic violence. Reports from Brazil, China, Germany and Greece show that incidents of domestic violence have increased exponentially. In the UK 16 suspected domestic abuse killings between 23 March and 12 April have been identified, higher than the average rate for the time of year. Refuge centres and support services had already suffered from austerity measures and this even less available now when needed most.
Canada’s Covid19 economic aid package includes US$50 million for shelters and sexual assault centres to support people fleeing gender-based violence. Other governments must follow their lead.
Many nations are now addressing the return to work and community life but as we move to a recover and reconstruction phase of this crisis it has to be recognised that even the progress made in improving labour market outcomes for women will dissipate if gendered impacts of the crisis not taken into account in policy responses.
Without specific policies to invest in care and regulate the labour market to formalise work the aftermath of this crisis will continue to exacerbate the structural inequality that already existed before it started. That means winning the fight for equal pay, social protection systems that cover women and putting an end to every-day sexism that is so pervasive in societies.
Valdelice de Jesus Almeida from Brazil says, “As a daily worker I have lost my job and my salary is a huge complement for my family. My husband cannot pay for everything on his own, so I don’t know how I am going to pay for those items that I am usually responsible for. I haven’t been receiving money for weeks. The majority of the will go through this same situation.”
The voices and rights of women must be incorporated in the design of the response and the preparedness for the future as we look to ensure more equitable and sustainable economies.
The response to the global pandemic has meant everyone has played a part to stop it’s spread, let’s use this moment to reset our economies and societies and give everyone an equal stake in the future we design.