As Maeve McGrath explains, the massive global shift to lockdown has placed added pressure on those fulfilling unpaid caring roles, in shining a light on gender inequality at the heart of society.
The state under capitalism has always relied overwhelmingly on women to carry out these roles – caring for the sick, the young and the elderly – for free, or for some small amount of welfare payment, rather than provide state-run services.
But the Covid19 crisis has shone a light on this inequality in a way which those who propagate it can no longer ignore.
Lockdown requires those who can work from home, do so. Naturally, this is far easier a task when there are two or more adults who can alternate their working hours in order to facilitate childcare.
Single parents, however, are primarily women, many of whom are now left in the difficult situation of having to work from home with no childcare to allow them to execute their working duties.
Since childcare within the home is usually always unpaid, the double burden on these mothers couldn’t be clearer. Added to their load is the obligation to assist school age children who are also ‘working from home’, without direct contact with their teachers.
The Irish government and the Northern Executive have made little provision for childcare of essential workers. Some of these children can go to school buildings to be looked after by teachers, but this is only available during normal school hours which will mean little to health and retail staff working overtime. This results in extended family members having to take on this duty, for those who have them.
This is, of course, much more difficult in the current crisis, with social distancing measures in place. Since this role often falls to grandparents, who are classed as at risk during this crisis if elderly, single mothers are left with little help.
The role of women under capitalism
Capitalism has a long history of relegating women to the home to have children and rear them without commensurate pay and regardless of their own desires or aspirations. On the face of it, we are told that womens’ rights were won in the 60’s and now we have the same opportunities as men but the reality is that women are still being cornered back into the home.
For example, women are typically paid less than men, but once they take up roles previously occupied by men – wages are shown to drop.
Since women are earning less, those in relationships will have a harder time winning an argument as to why they shouldn’t be the ones to cut their working hours and assume childcare duties should they have children. This is true in normal times, outside of the pandemic, where childcare is too expensive to justify the cost.
For single parents, giving up their jobs is often the only choice since the cost of childcare has become so exorbitant, North and South
One of the demands from the Womens’ Liberation movement from Italy was the ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign – clearly utopian in its aspirations but it underlined an important point. Often tasks such as housework and emotional labour are left to women to perform – without pay or acknowledgement – and states rely upon this to avoid paying out for state run services.
We are often fed the line that women are “natural caregivers” and that this skewed balance in our workforce is simply down to womens’ nature and does not represent an injustice. This is not only untrue, but it punishes women who do not identify with this trope.
Women and COVID-19
Social distancing measures have caused some grocery retailers in Ireland to ban children from their stores – but what are single mothers expected to do? This shames and marginalises women, just as scolding those with children in parks shames working class women who may not have the luxury of a yard to entertain kids during this pandemic.
Those that are in the workforce face a grim prospect. The state did not take sufficient action to protect front line workers from infection. This is clear from the fact that around a quarter of those infected with Covid 19 in Ireland are health care professionals, compared to just 8.3% in Italy. They also completely failed to provide staff in nursing homes or the retail sector with PPE. Varadkar and Donoghue weren’t so lax when it came to reassuring tax exiles that their wealth would be protected, despite the looming economic recession.
Within the medical profession there still exists a gulf between the genders. One study showed that in America, women doctors earn $51,315 less, on average, than their male counterparts. Female medical students also get it worse, and receive poorer reviews than male students.
Compare the treatment of nurses – predominantly women – to that of consultants by the Irish State. Returning nurses who are rejoining to help with the crisis are facing huge fees which are not always being waived to get their pin and re-register whilst the government is gingerly proposing contract terms to private consultants. Those consultants then are emboldened to reject the terms, knowing the state will concede to their demands. What is required is decisive leadership that would instead offer consultants contracts to work in the public service, or else face unemployment if they refuse to sign, and all fees waived for nurses. And hazard pay on top!
When the nurses went on strike last year there was overwhelming public support for their cause. Had they enjoyed a more militant union leadership they could have achieved every one of their demands. Every story we hear from our colleagues and friends about a hospital visit includes a compliment for the staff. The weekly doorstep clap for health care workers is gaining momentum in Ireland and the UK. There can be no doubt that in the public’s mind, these are valued professions and deserving of protection and decent remuneration. Twitter in recent weeks has been full of praise for teachers and childcare workers – mostly from exasperated parents.
It is worth considering how the labour market will develop over the next few decades. Stephen Hawking wrote that “the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”
His point underlines the need for caring professions to be valued by the State as the essential, irreplaceable roles that they are. Under our current system, they are an afterthought in government policy and treated with absolute disregard.