Women and COVID-19

By Charlotte Brady and Georgina Goddard

Crises do not equalize. COVID19 has fundamentally changed day-to-day living for the vast majority of us, but the burdens of this health crisis have not been carried equally. As other Unprecedented Times articles have addressed, this pandemic has served to augment existing inequalities, endemic to the capitalist system within which we live.

Crises do not equalize. COVID19 has fundamentally changed day-to-day living for the vast majority of us, but the burdens of this health crisis have not been carried equally. As other Unprecedented Times articles have addressed, this pandemic has served to augment existing inequalities, endemic to the capitalist system within which we live.

Women face specific adversities under capitalism. The reproductive work performed predominantly by women - caring for children, the elderly, the sick, the family, preparing food, cleaning – is systematically both undervalued by and essential to a capitalist economy. Capitalist production depends upon the underpaid work of women in feminised industries, and the unpaid work of women in the home, to raise and care for workers.

 In April Unprecedented Times published an article by Zac Gilles-Palmer on how this injustice has been exacerbated by the current pandemic. This health crisis has proven who the essential workers are - our nurses, teachers, childcare and aged care workers, retail workers and cleaners. They are predominantly women, who work long hours in unsafe conditions, earning 78 times less than the average CEO. 

In light of this, Young Labor Left recently hosted an online panel to discuss why COVID-19 is a gendered crisis. The discussion was led by Alison Pennington, Senior Economist at the Centre for Future Work, Jess D’Arienzo, industrial officer at the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, and Sam Parker, Assistant Coordinator at Western Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service. The panellists addressed the dangers faced by frontline workers in feminised industries during this pandemic, and the ongoing struggles of unequal domestic labour and family violence faced in the home. 

Though during this crisis nurses have daily endangered their health for the benefit of our community, their working conditions are not reflective of the essential work they do. Jessica D’Arienzo spoke to her experiences organizing healthcare workers on the frontline. Nurses have had to fight hard for basic protections we would expect to go without saying, such as adequate access to personal protective equipment and stable employment. Like most industries, nursing is increasingly casualised. With most elective procedures postponed over the past few months, thousands of casually employed nurses have been dismissed. Most have been unable to access JobKeeper. Hospitals have been running on an overworked skeleton staff, whom in NSW the Berejiklian LNP Government is thanking with a 12-month wage freeze.

The present economic slump is hurting all working people, but existing structural inequalities means that the harm to working women is acute . Feminised industries such as education, hospitality, retail and accommodation services have been hit hard by the pandemic. The April Labour Force statistics released the day of the panel did not reveal a gendered difference in the rate of unemployment, now at 6.2%. Alison Pennington stressed, however, that unemployment and underemployment is more economically disastrous for women. Women are paid on average 14% less than men working the same field, amounting to a weekly paycheck roughly $250 smaller. Women, especially sole-carers, live close to the poverty line in normal conditions, and have fewer savings to rely upon. COVID-19 has evened up a gendered difference in the rate of underemployment rate that existed before the pandemic. According to Alison, the majority of jobs moved into the home during the lockdown are performed by women. But a simultaneous increase in the domestic labour burden has made working from home impossible for many. Women’s waged working hours have reduced by 11.5%, compared to 7.5% for men, to homeschool children or care for family members in need of greater assistance during the lockdown. Even without a global pandemic, most women take significant time off from paid work to perform unpaid domestic labour across their working life and accumulate on average 20% less superannuation than men. Already, the fastest growing demographic experiencing homelessness is single women over 50, with insufficient superannuation to support them in retirement. Working hours women have lost now will carry severe ramifications well into the future. 

In addition to the economic stresses placed on the family during the lockdown, confinement to the home has increased the risk and incidence of family violence. Sam Parker reported women experiencing domestic violence now have next to no privacy from an abusive partner, so are struggling to seek help from services like the Western Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service. The women Sam assists say it has been impossible to perform paid work from home, or to homeschool children, and fear for the safety of their family is now around the clock. Space in domestic violence shelters is always scarce and, as most homes are under huge financial and emotional strain at this time, women escaping violence have less support from family and friends. The toll for workers in domestic violence services is also high. With office closures, caseworkers like Sam have had to bring the trauma of their work into their own homes. 

The situation for women during the COVID-19 crisis is dire. But the panelists still found inspiring stories to tell us. Since 2018 Sam has fronted the ASU’s ‘We Won’t Wait’ campaign, lobbying for 10 days of paid domestic violence leave to be included in all enterprise agreements. The ongoing campaign has so far secured 5 days of unpaid leave in many awards. For Jess, the growth in union membership during the pandemic has been astonishing. Social distancing restrictions have necessitated some changes to organizing strategy. But according to Jess the core message - solidarity in struggle against low pay, unsafe conditions, insecurity and injustice -  has been as compelling for workers now as ever.

Women have been at the coalface of Australia’s most significant grassroots labour movements. In the past month we have mourned the loss of Jack Mundey, champion of the legendary Green Bans. Jack’s contribution to the movement was enormous. But stories of class struggle often, and inaccurately, place men front and centre. It would do the legacy of the Green Ban movement a disservice not to remember that the majority of community action groups the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation worked together with were established and run by women. The BLF campaigned for equal opportunity and pay in the construction industry, took strike action in solidarity with workers in feminized industries, and in NSW stopped works at Sydney University to support the fight for feminist philosophy courses to be included in the curriculum. The Green Bans is a movement that realised the unity in all struggles against capitalist and patriarchal oppressors. This is the kind of transformative ambition that we should take into the post-COVID-19 future.

What reforms should we be fighting for coming out of the pandemic? Alison’s proposal is to socialise childcare, cleaning and meal preparation. She proposes reducing the length of the working week, so employment can be evenly shared between the overworked and the underemployed. All workers should be guaranteed a livable income, which Alison says could be achieved through wage subsidies or by expanding public sector jobs. Such reforms would create meaningful employment opportunities and take the pressure off the nuclear family, so all working people have more time for the things they enjoy. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the failings and cruelty of a free market system. But it has also demonstrated we have the capacity to realise something better. This is manifest in the radiation of mutual aid groups and the growth in union membership. There is an appetite for reforms that will release women from low pay, poor conditions and an oppressive unpaid labour burden. It is a political moment we must seize. 

Building a socialist feminist world will be hard work. With business lobby groups already petitioning for award rates and leave entitlements to be further reduced in an ‘Accord 2.0’, Alison predicts the health crises will be followed by an assault on Australia’s already weak industrial relations laws. Bringing about the reforms that will improve the lives of working women will take strong agitation by workers, by unions, and by the ALP. It is inspiring that the leader of the opposition should be calling for COVID-19 to mark a once-in-a-generation moment to reform our economy in the interests of working people. It is disheartening that in the same breath he should be calling for the current JobSeeker payment to be reduced commensurate to the age pension, which already sits at the poverty line. It is a political line that demonstrates a failure of imagination. The ‘Women&COVID19’ panel was organized and attended by rank-and-file Party members who believe a socialist feminist world is the one we should be fighting for. It is time the senior Party followed their lead.



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  • Charlotte Brady
    published this page in Articles 2020-05-28 18:04:25 +1000