COVID-19: revealing the inequalities in the world of work

Published on 
04/30/2020

While most workers will not have the opportunity to take the streets and raise their challenges, we need to enforce a core message: the COVID-19 disruption is playing out along the lines of class, gender and wealth. And it is playing dirty, revealing a system that fuels inequality

By Caroline Othim and Joy Hernandez

The latest buzz word, COVID-19, depicts a disease that has ravaged many parts of the world, leaving millions of people globally infected and hundreds of thousands dead. The impacts of the global pandemic are not limited to health; it also affected peoples’ lives socially and economically.

While May 1st each year provides an opportunity for workers' solidarity and protests to commemorate the International LabourDay, this year will be different. Workers will not have the opportunity to collectively and publicly take the streets to raise the challenges that they face everyday in the world of work. This comes in the backdrop of governments’ directives to enforce containment measures for COVID-19, including by imposing quarantines to those repatriated, closing schools, universities, restaurants, and shops; cancelling public and private events, including religious activities; shutting down of transportation services (internal and external); locking down of affected areas and in some places, imposing curfews to restrict movement and observe social distancing, frequent handwashing; and cancelling or banning flights.

The effects of the coronavirus are being felt disproportionately by the poor and the working class and the COVID-19 disruption is playing out along the lines of class, gender and wealth. Workers in all countries at all levels of development have been affected. Many wage earners, day labourers, and workers in the informal economy are forced to keep working in order to be able to put food on the table. Their precarious working conditions and job/income insecurity hinder them from stocking up on food and other essential items. Meanwhile, many frontline workers in the health sector have contracted the coronavirus and died in the line of duty.

The reduced economic activities due to lockdowns have led to massive layoffs and non-payment of wages, pushing many workers into unemployment, poverty and starvation. In Kenya, the tourism and flower and horticultural exports, which are key foreign exchange earners, are struggling to keep afloat and sending workers home, as they face the challenge of shipping their products to key buyers in Europe. In Bangladesh, workers in the garments sector, who are predominantly women, were left without jobs as big fashion brands, such as H&M, Primark, Gap, and Inditex, cancelled their orders. Such are the same brands that accumulate huge profits off the back of the Bangladeshi workers’ cheap labour.

This situation is aggravated by the existing anti-labour policies, especially in developing countries in the South, that barely guarantee the workers’ basic rights. This is despite the governments’ obligations and commitments, as members of the International Labour Organization (ILO), to ratify and implement the core labour standards and to ensure that workplaces comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (ILO Convention 155).

The impacts of the crisis are also gendered, as women are hit harder. They carry the greater burden of unpaid care and domestic work, doing three times as much unpaid care work as men. Women also make up to 70 per cent of the workers in the health sector who are now working incredibly long hours and The crisis has also revealed the importance of underpaid and precarious emergency workers, cleaners, janitors, postal workers, public utility workers and all those workers who majority are women and they keep the vital fabric of society running.

"What we are witnessing is not a COVID-19 crisis. It is a systemic crisis: one of economic, gender and social inequalities, fueled by unfair tax systems that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. We, civil society organisations and public trade unions, have been denouncing this unequal system for years, and are now looking at its dire symptoms. We are coping with the labour world’s systemic flaws"

Whether they are looking at short-term solutions or at “the world after”, Governments must take stronger action now:

We urge governments and state actors to ensure that strategies to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak take a rights-based approach taking into account the specific needs of all workers to achieve greater equality, opportunities, and social protection. Governments should provide immediate assistance and social protection for vulnerable populations, especially those working and living in the informal sector and informal settlements, to complement the efforts being made by the health sector to curb the spread of the disease.

Covid-19 is exposing the flaws of decades-old neoliberal policies that promote privatisation of health care systems and austerity measures that resulted in underfunded and understaffed public health systems and erosion of social protection that prioritises the interest and wellbeing of people, and not of corporations. Governments must allocate adequate resources that will enable public health systems to be  well-equipped to respond to public health emergencies and to care for the working people. 
Governments must also ensure decent work and living wages for all. In this connection, they must put in place policies which ensure that all workers, including informal sector workers, casual or subcontracted workers, are provided with sufficient sickness benefits and leave allowances for any necessary quarantine. Those who are required to report to work, especially the frontliners, should be entitled to hazard pay as they are putting themselves at risk on a daily basis. Instead of bailing out corporations, governments should rather provide immediate and adequate assistance to workers who have been laid off or who have lost their incomes while their workplaces shut down their operations.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the crucial importance of the care economy and the role that women take on in care work. Hence, governments must - re-centre the care economy - recognize unpaid care work and introduce policies that serve to reduce and redistribute the burden of care work that falls largely on women. This can be done by ensuring that tax policies recognise gender differences and eliminate gender-based discrimination, including in care and domestic work. This can play a critical role in providing enabling conditions for women to enjoy and exercise their rights and live a life  of dignity. Governments can also introduce measures that would reduce the burden on women by repealing value-added tax and other consumption taxes and to provide tax credits to MSMEs, low-income earners, breadwinners, etc. Some workers in the formal sector earn more and have the privilege to work from home, with continued salary.

Caroline Othim & Joy Hernandez are both Regional Policy and Campaign Coordinators, respectively in Africa and Asia for the Global Alliance for Tax Justice

Picture ©Saktiman Ghosh/India National Hawker Federation

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