Working 9-5, and then some: COVID-19 and the burden of unpaid caregiving

Care work

Working 9-5, and then some: COVID-19 and the burden of unpaid caregiving

The ONE Campaign is a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030 so that everyone, everywhere can lead a life of dignity and opportunity. The devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis are putting this vision in peril. ONE’s Aftershocks newsletter and Africa COVID-19 Tracker deliver the data and analysis on this ongoing crisis, including under-reported stories on the pandemic’s impacts on the lives of women throughout Africa.

The Donor Tracker monitors the top OECD DAC donors’ latest commitments to addressing global challenges, including the COVID-19 crisis. Measuring the aftershocks of donors’ policy decisions, and of the pandemic itself, is vital to understanding the contours of the crisis and making real commitments to finally bring it to an end.


Unequal burdens: the pre-pandemic status-quo

Everywhere in the world, caretaking duties disproportionally fall on the shoulders of women and girls. Care work includes unpaid work done at home, where women cook, clean, and tend to their own children and sick or elderly relatives, but it also includes paid labor performed outside of the home. This can be formal, for example, hospital work, or informal, such as an agreement between community members to look after an elderly relative or trade childcare.

Women’s care work isn’t just the backbone of family life, it also plays a vital social role, backstopping public infrastructure in areas where the government can’t deliver basic services like healthcare, childcare, eldercare, or even education. This means that girls and women living in countries with unstable governments and inadequate social services are more likely to be more heavily burdened with extra hours of unpaid labor. The distribution of responsibilities between men and women is the most unequal in low-income countries and most equal in high-income nations, but nowhere in the world is unpaid care work split at a full 50-50. The expectation that care work will be performed by girls and women behind the scenes allows boys and men to pursue formal, paid employment unfettered, further exacerbating the persistent wage gap between men and women, which is already dramatic even when only accounting for hours of paid labor.

Care work is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors, estimated to grow from 206 million jobs in 2021 to 368 million by 2030. Despite the crucial importance of this work, informal care laborers often lack benefits and protection, especially against physical or mental harm.

The consequences of COVID

This global burden further intensified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as unemployment surged. The closure of childcare services during national lockdowns spurred increasing social pressure for employed women to leave their workplaces to provide childcare and education at home, again increasing the care gap between women and men. As schools closed, women were more likely than men to miss work, particularly in families with school-age children. Low-income women were even more disproportionately affected; three times as many low-income women were forced to quit a job for reasons due to COVID-19 as their high-income counterparts. Of those women who did remain employed throughout school or childcare closures, many were forced to pick up the extra child care duties on top of their other job, doubling their workload or, essentially, halving their pay.
Women have performed an additional 173 hours each of childcare on average during the crisis: 12% more than they were performing pre-pandemic and triple the average 59 additional hours that working-aged men performed. In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the figures are even more staggering, with women performing an additional 217 hours of unpaid childcare since the start of the pandemic compared to men's 70.

Women on the extremes of the income spectrum have been hardest hit by increased care burdens; those in formal, high-income occupations have been forced to juggle childcare while working long hours from home, and those in informal, low-income occupations have struggled to earn a stable income to support their families while also caring for their children. Women-owned firms were also 40% more likely to close than majority-men-owned firms during the pandemic, due, in part, to women's caretaking responsibilities.

This disproportionate burden causes cascading negative effects in current and future workforce participation among women, the ramifications of which are among COVID-19’s many uniquely gendered aftershocks. Some consequences include poorer access to health and other essential services, stunted education (especially among girls), and increased economic instability; two-thirds of the jobs lost during the pandemic were women and, as a group, women lost US$800.0 billion in income worldwide.

With little industry protection, female care workers in LMICs have been especially hard hit

Women’s participation in care-focused industries also makes them more vulnerable to the economic shocks of the pandemic and the risks of infection. According to a survey conducted in 14 African countries, 85% of domestic care workers (the majority of whom are women) received no severance pay after being laid off because of COVID-19, and those who retained their jobs had their income reduced, dramatically impacting their households amidst rising food and fuel prices (also results of the pandemic).

Domestic workers are also at increased risk of COVID-19 infection, due to the proximity to their employers and their households that is inherent to the care work they perform. But due in part to the informal nature of the work, employers in many countries are not obligated to provide domestic workers with any paid sick days, further adversely impacting workers’ health and the health of their families. Domestic workers must also buy their own personal protective equipment (if they can afford it), further straining their finances or threatening their safety.

Of the 67 million domestic workers worldwide, 73% are women. Fifty-five million domestic workers are at risk of losing their jobs and income due to COVID-19 lockdowns, over half of whom -- 37 million -- are women. While many governments have instituted protective measures to help vulnerable communities during the ongoing pandemic, these policies often fall short of protecting workers in the informal sector, including domestic workers, especially in LMICs. The COVID-19 crisis further strained these nations’ already weakened financial resources and health systems. As a result, social safety net policies are unable to be implemented alongside lockdown measures, meaning that the brunt of these negative consequences fell on the shoulders of domestic and other informal workers.

In Tanzania, for example, domestic workers, who make up 5% of the country’s total working population, were among the hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic shocks. 16% of domestic workers lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while those who remained at work took severe pay cuts and received severely limited support from their employers, many of whom were themselves either laid off or had taken pay cuts as a result of the pandemic. At least 81% of domestic workers don’t have written contracts, limiting their power to advocate for themselves. Domestic workers who fall sick are at risk of losing their jobs because of employers’ fears of contracting COVID-19, creating an increasingly unstable job environment.

According to ONE’s Africa COVID-19 Tracker, only 304,603 people in Tanzania have been vaccinated out of 62 million people (Africa’s total population rate is 1.4 billion). The astoundingly unequal vaccine rollout has significant consequences for Tanzania’s domestic caregivers (as it does for those throughout Africa) as they have neither the financial freedom to turn down domestic work nor access to the tools that will keep them safe. Over 60% of domestic workers don’t have social security or even medical insurance, leaving them without any guaranteed access to health care services or medication if they do get sick.

Donors’ economic empowerment projects too often fail to account for unpaid care work, further marginalizing women

According to the Donor Tracker ‘Insights’ publications on gender equality, 14 OECD DAC donors spent US$37.7 billion on gender equality projects in the economic and productive sectors in 2018. Of that spending, just 2% targeted gender equality as their principal objective. The other 98% of funding went to broad-stroked interventions geared towards opening positions in the labor force and increasing community job openings; these projects featured gender equality as only one of many goals. Projects that do not center gender equality as their principal goal rarely account for women’s unpaid care work burden, too often making the potential benefits of these programs ultimately inaccessible for women. There is a long history of this kind of major oversight; unpaid care work is typically unaccounted for in policy agendas because it is erroneously perceived to be irrelevant to government policy and too difficult to measure since there is no standardized method of doing so. These assumptions ultimately limit policy effectiveness across all socio-economic sectors, stifling structural improvement and growth.

The Generation Equality Forum has laid out a framework to accelerate women’s economic empowerment, including addressing unpaid care work

At the 2021 Generation Equality Forum (GEF), stakeholders in the public, private, philanthropic, and civic sectors came together for a global conference to recommit to a gender-equal world and agree to concrete plans for a gender-equitable economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. The GEF’s six ‘Action Coalitions’ (working groups across six key sub-areas within gender equality) launched a  Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality, laying out concrete goals for gender equality to be achieved by 2026.

The GEF Action Coalition on Economic and Justice Rights is especially dedicated to recognizing, reducing, and redistributing unpaid care work while also guaranteeing female care workers’ labor rights and decent pay. Other major objectives of this coalition include reducing the number of working women living in poverty by 17 million by 2026, reducing the gender gap in women’s financial inclusion by 6%, and increasing access to ownership and control over land and housing by 7 million women.

The GEF yielded major commitments and contributions from a diverse range of stakeholders, including the EU, France, the US, as well as international organizations and private sector leaders. In total, over US$40.0 billion was pledged at the GEF toward new investments advancing women’s economic and social empowerment and to tackling threats to women’s rights caused by the COVID-19 crisis. This massive, multilateral effort is the first step towards addressing the backsliding across many gender equality indicators globally since the start of the pandemic.

Alongside the GEF, UNICEF and other United Nations sister agencies have shown their commitment to promoting gender equality in their COVID-19 response strategies. UNICEF released a five-point action plan, prioritizing five core programmatic and advocacy actions. Among the five core objectives, the first is providing care for caregivers. One of UNICEF's major proposed policy interventions would provide cash transfers for women and girls, as the outbreak caused much of the caretaking responsibilities and child-rearing duties to be unfairly placed on them without any sort of remittance. Recognizing and redistributing the burden of unpaid care work of women is also a primary objective echoed by the United Nations; the UN currently has multiple initiatives tackling this problem and the agency is advocating for reprioritizing public expenditures to allocate more funding to social care infrastructure to support women’s productive and unpaid care and domestic work.

Although the COVID-19 crisis brought new challenges towards achieving gender equity, it also galvanized new policy efforts that provide targeted support for women. While previous interventions primarily gave economic support for women’s paid care work burden, the commitments made by the GEF and other international multilateral organizations are a positive first step towards addressing the unpaid care work burden, a major under-reported issue in gender equity. Now more than ever, interventions and policies must be implemented to provide further economic and social support for women so that the global community can recover equally from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and begin to build back better.