The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all parts of society and has thrown hundreds of millions out of work globally. However, a closer look reveals that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women workers play a key role in health care, child care, elder care, and teaching while experiencing low wages, insecure employment, and domestic and sexual violence—all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Job losses and precarious work
On April 9 a Statistics Canada report outlined the industries which were hit hardest by the pandemic in terms of total job losses: accommodation and food services (-25.6%), information, culture and recreation (-16.6%), educational services (-10.4%) and wholesale and retail trade (-7.4%). Women accounted for the majority of jobs lost in all of these sectors.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported on the data released by Statistics Canada which found that in other sectors, women accounted for almost 100% of the job losses (health care, social assistance, finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing, and business, building and other support services). Women make up 47% of all workers, and yet accounted for 63% of all job losses. Among workers aged 25 to 54 years, women represented 70% of all job losses. Importantly, “as stark as they are, the unemployment figures don’t include those who have left the labour market altogether and are now at home caring for children or others who are ill with no prospect of immediate return. Between February and March there was a significant increase in the number of women ‘not in the labour market.’ Among core-aged women (aged 25-54 years), that number grew by 145,800 (or 10.5%).”
These figures contrast with previous recessions where job losses are typically skewed towards men, because industries dominated by men such as ,“goods producing sectors like construction and manufacturing tend to be more sensitive to the business cycle or at least have been historically.” In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly hit the service sector where women are overrepresented. iPolitics reported on April 9 that “the largest employment declines were recorded in industries including accommodation and food services, which saw employment dip by almost 24 per cent; information, culture and recreation, which saw employment fall by 13.3 per cent; and education services, which saw 9.1 per cent fewer jobs.”
The same has been true internationally for industries like accommodation, food, retail and manufacturing where women are overrepresented. For example, in Central America the percentage of all women employed in these sectors is 59%, in South East Asia it is 49%, in South America it is 45%. In the United States, Pew Research reported on June 9th that from February to May 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared to 9 million men. Hispanic women saw the steepest decline in employment at -21%. A report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) showed that in the United States, women made up nearly 60% of job losses between February to May 2020 and outnumbered job losses by men in all sectors of the economy. Meghan Cohorst, spokesperson for the union UNITE HERE in the United States which represents 300,000 workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries, said that 98%of their members, most of whom are women and immigrants, were laid off.
In addition, women are more likely to be employed in marginal and lower-paying jobs which were more greatly impacted. Research from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) showed that about a quarter (26.5%) of women workers in the EU have a precarious job, compared to 15.1% of men. In Japan, women account for as many as two-thirds of “non-regular jobs”, which are disappearing because of the pandemic. Of 970,000 such positions lost in April alone, about 710,000 were held by women.
Health care and elder care
Women are on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as workers in health care and long-term care facilities. Women make up 82% of health workers in Canada, compared to 47% in the labour force overall. In Canadian nursing homes, women represent almost 90% of paid staff.
The same is true internationally. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that women make up 70% of global health-care workers and as much as 95% of long-term care workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that these workers experience dangerous and gruelling conditions:
Health workers, in particular those dealing with COVID-19 patients, are often subject to arduous (and sometimes dangerous) working conditions. Long working hours in intensive care units, a lack of personal protective equipment and other resources, understaffing and intense emotional stress expose health workers to higher risks of infection and transmission, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
A report by the The Royal Society of Canada Working Group on Long-Term Care indicated that Canada’s proportion of deaths in long-term care facilities far outstrippped other countries, saying, “Canada is experiencing a far higher proportion of total country COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes than other comparable countries—81% in Canada, compared to 28% in Australia, 31% in the US and 66% in Spain, based on current reports.”
The intensity and amount of work imposed on these workers has only increased during the pandemic. A similar increase in demand on women as health-care workers occurred during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. Personal support workers who perform backbreaking work in long-term care facilities and sometimes work 16-hour days are often paid minimum wage. In addition, until the recent public outcry in Ontario, these workers were denied full-time hours by employers and forced to work at several facilities. The employers wanted to avoid having to provide these workers with benefits. Nevertheless, the owners of private long-term care facilities in Ontario did not hesitate to reward themselves with bonuses during the pandemic.
The horrific situation and deaths in long term-care homes were preventable. Workers in long-term care had repeatedly and insistently exposed vulnerabilities in their workplaces over decades and were ignored by politicians who were more interested in cutting corners and lowering taxes on the wealthy and big business. In 2019, the Ontario government signalled its plan to cut $8 billion from the health-care budget by 2024, leading to widespread outcry by health-care workers and unions. The crisis of underfunding in Ontario’s health-care system—with hospital corridors being so crowded with patients that it became referred to as “hallway medicine”—was on the radar of politicians for years and repeatedly flagged by health-care workers, but was met with inaction and even further cuts. Now, it is the health-care workers and long term care workers, overwhelmingly women, who are working exhausting and dangerous double-shifts to pick up the mess that the bosses and their politicians created.
The pandemic has also created the conditions for a surge in violence against women. In country after country a pattern emerged: “In Europe, one country after another seems to have followed the same grim path: First, governments impose lockdowns without making sufficient provisions for domestic abuse victims. About 10 days later, distress calls spike, setting off a public outcry. Only then do the governments scramble to improvise solutions.”
Several countries had increased reports of domestic violence after their lockdowns: the number of reports increased in Spain by 18%, in Britain by 25%, and in France by 30%. In China, calls to help lines tripled compared to the previous year.
In fact, these numbers may be an underestimation of the actual situation. Pamela Cross, legal director of Luke’s Place—an organization in Oshawa, Ontario which provides support and training for shelter staff and lawyers—explained in an interview:
Living full time with an abuser limits the victim’s ability to call for help” from family, friends or the police. Similarly, it is much more difficult to have a private conversation with a shelter or a lawyer, given that doing so requires it be done by phone or video conference. [Cross] speculates that [some] victims may “have decided, for the moment, that the risk associated with COVID-19 is greater than the abuse they are currently experiencing” and that “if [the victim’s] escape plan involves the victim’s elderly parents, this is no longer a reasonable option.
Violence against women is not new. Pre-pandemic statistics show that approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. Statistics Canada reported that intimate partner violence, including both spousal and dating violence, accounts for one in every four violent crimes reported to police. In 2011, there were approximately 97,500 victims of intimate partner violence, which represents 341 victims per 100,000 population. The vast majority of these victims (80%) are women.
Women’s organizations for decades have highlighted the need for additional funding to provide shelter spaces and resources for women facing domestic violence. Instead, their budgets have been slashed by politicians. In May 2019, the Ford government in Ontario gutted funding for women’s shelters by $17 million. Lack of space and resources is not a new phenomenon created by the pandemic. Rather, the pandemic has blown apart an already weakened structure which had been consciously and systematically dismantled, putting thousands of women in danger.
Another disgusting example of the abuse of women highlighted since the start of the pandemic has been predatory landlords taking advantage of the pandemic and exploiting women who have lost their jobs by soliciting them for “sex for rent”. In Newfoundland and Labrador a survey of 80 respondents showed that 36.3% of respondents said a landlord solicited them for sex, with half offering a rental discount and 10.3% of respondents being under the age of 18 at the time the landlord made the solicitation. Women in other countries have reported this practice, and a respondent to another survey by the organization National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) in the United States was facing eviction by her property manager who solicited her: “if I did not have sex with him, he was going to put me out… As a single mum, I had no choice. I didn’t want to lose my housing.” In the wake of this sickening sexual exploitation, the Ford government proposed and passed a law which strengthens the hand of landlords by allowing them to enforce evictions in the middle of a pandemic.
Child care and care work
Another aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an overwhelming surge in child-care work borne by women. Even prior to the announcement of lockdowns, women were expected to take on the extra burden of domestic labour. According to the ILO, women do three-quarters of all unpaid care work, which many refer to as the “second shift” that working women come home to after their formal workday.
Since the pandemic, nine of every 10 students were out of school according to a study in April by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Women with children spend an average of 65 hours a week on chores, almost a third more than men with children do during the pandemic.
At the beginning of the crisis, this expectation put women at a heightened risk of being laid off. Emily Martin from the National Women’s Law Center in the United States made the point that “as the entire child-care sector shut down, women were losing flexibility at the very moment that employers were deciding who to lay off and who to fire.” The situation is even more difficult for single-parent families, 78.4% of whom are headed by women internationally.
Another factor contributing to women disproportionately being pushed out of the workforce is the economic decisions that working families are compelled to make due to school closures. Canadian mothers earn 40% of household income. The Atlantic noted:
At an individual level, the choices of many couples over the next few months will make perfect economic sense. What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after. All this looking after—this unpaid caring labor—will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.” [Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of global-health policy at the London School of Economics added:] “it’s not just about social norms of women performing care roles; it’s also about practicalities… Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility?”
Similarly, unemployment rates often hide the reality of exactly how many women workers have been forced out of the workforce. The Vancouver Sun reported on June 6,
[R]ecent labour market data show men are disproportionately benefitting from the phased provincial reopening of the economy while women are struggling. In May, men recouped 14 per cent of the nearly 1.5 million jobs they lost in March and April during the pandemic induced shutdown. That compares with just five per cent recovery rate for the 1.5 million female jobs lost despite women being the earliest victims of COVID-19 fallout as service-sector and lower-wage positions were decimated… A second reason is women having to stay home and care for their children while schools and daycares remain closed, according to economist Armine Yalnizyan… May jobs figures released Friday in Ottawa showing an unexpected gain of about 290,000 positions after two months of record losses also reveal child care as a key limitation. About 94,000 Canadians who weren’t in the labour force but wanted work said they weren’t looking because of personal or family responsibilities — 80 per cent of those were women.
A lifting of the COVID-19 lockdown does not promise any meaningful recovery for women workers. Jennifer Robson, a social policy expert from Carleton University, noted that if businesses reopen and there are no adequate child-care options available, temporary layoffs and reduced hours could turn into permanent layoffs.
Statistics Canada reported that in 2014, 68% of all teachers and professors in Canada were women. Women made up 84% of all elementary and kindergarten teachers and 59% of all high school teachers in Canada in 2011. They made up 97% of all early childhood educators and assistants in the same year.
The very fact that half of the workforce has been effectively paralzyed with the closure of schools flies in the face of years of accusations by right-wing politicians that teachers were overpaid, did work that was not valuable and were “glorified babysitters”. Just this February, teachers’ unions in Ontario went on strike against Doug Ford’s cuts to education and a poll by CTV showed that 70% of respondents supported the teachers. Like health-care and long-term care workers, the pandemic has starkly demonstrated the social value of the work done by teachers, daycare workers, and education workers.
Because of the colossal role that women workers play in the Canadian economy, making up 47% of all workers, both federal and provincial governments have been hurrying to devise plans to reopen schools to get women workers back to work and making profits for their bosses, as Quebec Premier François Legault did in May by pushing through school reopenings.
However, these same governments have been tight-fisted about providing the resources actually necessary to reopen schools safely. From personal protective equipment to hiring more teachers to reducing class sizes to ensure social distancing, no such commitments have been forthcoming from governments on how to practically ensure that education workers and their students are safe.
Reopening schools puts students, teachers, staff, and the family and older relatives of students at a heightened risk of infection and even death. In Indiana, a school closed just hours after it had opened after a student tested positive for COVID-19.
Fight capitalism to win liberation
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women, just like the pandemic itself, was not inevitable. Doctor Larry Brilliant, who helped eradicate smallpox, said, “outbreaks are inevitable. Epidemics are optional.” With adequate measures, the pandemic could have been stopped in its tracks. Instead, cuts to health care and insufficient preparation over decades has led to almost 9,000 deaths in Canada alone and more than 700,000 deaths internationally.
Similarly, decades of austerity and cuts to health care, education, child care, long-term care facilities, women’s shelters, and other social services left women vulnerable to catastrophic job losses, overwork, and a heightened risk of infection, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation. Workers have been told for years that there is no money for pay equity, for affordable child care, for shelters for women escaping domestic abuse, while massive bailouts are handed to corporations, even during the pandemic. These conditions that women experience, from cuts to services to low wages to domestic labour in the home, are immensely profitable for the bosses. These conditions are not bugs but features of a system which depends on the oppression of women for survival.
An injury to one is an injury to all and the entire labour movement must take up the cause of women workers and fight with them against these monstrous conditions. That means fighting for free child care and demanding that women escaping domestic violence be given free and safe alternative housing.
If schools reopen, it must be demanded that they reopen only if the workers say so: if the teachers and education workers deem them to be safe for both students and workers. The funds must be released to ensure that a reduction in class sizes and social distancing are made possible, including additional funds to pay for personal protective equipment and the hiring of the additional teachers necessary to accommodate a greater number of classes. If the conditions of the pandemic are too dangerous for work, the labour movement should demand that all those at home be given full pay.
All workers benefit from these demands and should fight back against the attempts by the bosses to shift the cost of the pandemic that the bosses themselves created onto the shoulders of the working class, and in particular onto the shoulders of working women. Women workers have no interests in common with capitalist politicians who happen to be women and who ram through the same cuts as their male counterparts. They have every interest in common with working men who are also being pummeled with job losses, evictions, and forced to work in dangerous conditions during the pandemic to make profits for the bosses.
While the politicians and bosses can self-isolate from the comfort of their air-conditioned mansions, women workers are on the front lines taking care of the sick and elderly while exposing themselves to the virus and working punishing “double shifts” of their workday followed by care work in the home. What the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates more than anything is that a society run under the profit motive cannot meet human needs and that fighting for women’s liberation is inextricably tied to the fight against the capitalist system as a whole.