Precarious, Invisible but Essential: Womxn Workers Sustain Life in a Time of Crisis
Experts are already warning that the economic crisis caused by coronavirus could push over half a billion people into poverty.
Most of these people are workers. In fact, the International Labor Organization (ILO) forecasts that workers are set to lose an addition 3.4 trillion dollars in income because of the pandemic.
Womxn re already among the hardest hit workers, as they are more likely to be engaged in precarious, low-wage and informal work. They are also the front-line workers holding up the collective response to the pandemic.
These are care workers for the elderly, childcare workers, domestic workers. Health workers, nurses and doctors. Cashiers in supermarkets and food vendors, seasonal workers in global food chains.
Often earning poverty wages at the bottom of global value chains that, year after year, produce extraordinary profits for rich shareholders. Essential services facing the coronavirus: who is caring, healing and feeding all of us?
Most of the so-called essential services belong to feminized sectors of work. For instance, 70% of the world’s health workers are womxn. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, womxn make up 82% of all cashiers in the EU. ILO estimates that 2/3 of the 381 million workers that make up the global care workforce are womxn, and this proportion rises to over 3/4 in the Americas, Europe and Central Asia.
Working from home is not an option for them as it is for rich workers. Most of them commute by public transport to their workplace. Every day, they are taking on the physical and emotional burden of caring, healing and feeding all of us, not to mention the risk of becoming infected.
In addition to being working class womxn, they often experience discrimination and inequality because of race, migration status, sexuality or age.
Working class womxn, who have been historically left at the margins of our economies and societies, are in fact central to its well-being.
Lakshmi*, temporary worker in the tea estates in Assam, India. Credit: Purnima Tanti @ngo_pajhra
Lakshmi*, a 6 month-pregnant, informally hired temporary worker, she has two daughters and became widowed one month before lockdown. Since lockdown, a government notification established that tea plantations might resume 50% of their workforce but leave out all temporary workers like Lakshmi. Since lockdown, Lakshmi has not been paid the governments’ grants she is entitled to, nor could she get food items that were distributed nearby. Her efforts to follow up on the grant have been unsuccessful. Lakshmi has resorted to begging, and was able to borrow food items from a nearby grocery shop, but with an assurance that she will pay back once lockdown ends. Despite her years as an essential worker providing tea, she is now struggling to access her most basic rights.
Womxn workers on precariously the front line: essential to sustain life, but unrecognized and unprotected
Most womxn workers are engaged in temporary and casual work, which precludes proper access to social protection rights, benefits and cash transfers put in place as a first response of Covid19. Many work long hours and multiple shifts, which can make even harder for them to buy food and access other essential goods.
Unsecure working conditions, work instability and non-standard arrangements are commonplace as well. Being exposed to the virus adds extra layers of vulnerability to already unsecure working conditions.
The least protected workers are asked to risk the most.
Julie Mwangi*, doctor in a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya
“A lot of the emotions that are going right now, is mostly anxiety. There is a lot of anxiety around Covid-19, because first of all we have seen what is going on around the world. I am worried about getting exposed at work, am I going to get infected. I am worried about if I’m going to carry this back home, to my family and my friends. There’s that level of anxiety.
I am also concerned about my safety, is it assured? What happens in the event that I get sick? Right now, insurance companies aren’t covering your medical bills, should you get infected. That puts you at an interesting position as a health care worker.”
The care crisis uncovered: an elephant in the room we can no longer ignore
Womxn add double or triple shifts to their working day through their unpaid care work shift. Globally, womxn spend 3 times more time in unpaid care work than men — this is the equivalent monetary value of at least $10.8 trillion annually. Measures such as the stay-at-home orders and the closure of schools or other care services will amplify the gap and expose the size of the ongoing care crisis.
We need to make deep changes in our societies to move towards greater recognition, redistribution and reduction of the amount of unpaid care work borne by womxn. Care work should be recognized as work, and we should promote the co-responsibility of men, the State, the private sector and communities.
It is time that all of us care!
Rebuilding a fairer world where womxn workers get the respect they deserve
Today more than ever, our societies rely on essential services delivered by womxn, and womxn’s unpaid care work that is undervalued, unrecognized and invisible in our economy. As our economic model operates within a patriarchal system, they lack social recognition and dignified remuneration, even at a time when the pandemic has put life sustainability in the spotlight.
The virus has shown us just how important this work is to sustaining our world. That it is the carers, the cleaners and the supermarket workers that keep our world going, not the hedge fund managers, the tax accountants or the merchant bankers.
International Workers’ Day reminds us about the importance of the collective power of workers. It reminds us that we must repay this commitment after the crisis with a revolutionary commitment to dignified work and caring societies.
There can be no return to the world before the virus where womxn workers were exploited worldwide to benefit a rich, white, male minority and fuel inequalities.
The word womxn is used in this article as the alternative spelling of the word “woman” or “women” to recognize the struggles, identities, bodily integrity and intersectionality of feminist and womxn’s rights organizing and strives to be inclusive of all in the gender identity spectrum not excluding bi-sexual, intersex, trans womxn.
This entry posted on 1 May 2020, by Cristina Rovira Izquierdo, Inequality Program advisor at Oxfam Intermón Inequality Strategic theme, based in Barcelona. Over the past two years, she has been co-author of Oxfam’s research on women’s precariousness at work in Europe and currently coordinates Oxfam’s efforts to build Womxn’s Right to Dignified Work Initiative. *names changed