COVID-19: Women bore a 'disproportionate burden' of economic and social cost

Prof. JosAnn Cutajar says women are 'heavily engaged' in frontline occupations putting them at greater risk for infection 

Research shows that women face a heavy workload at home
Research shows that women face a heavy workload at home

Women have borne a disproportionate burden of the pandemic's economic and social cost during the COVID-19 pandemic, academic JosAnn Cutajar told a conference on Gender Equality.

Cutajar explained that women were “heavily engaged” in frontline occupations and were over-represented in jobs that could not be done from home during the pandemic.

Equality Commissioner Renee Laviera said that 76% of medical workers, 93% of child care workers, 86% of personal care workers and 95% of domestic cleaners in Malta are women.

“We are seeing a trend where women are taking on more responsibilities when it comes to household work, in terms of taking care of the children, including their educational needs and household work. They may also be working full-time jobs. Time and time again, we see this burden falling on women exponentially more than men,” Laviera said.

Turning to domestic violence, Laviera added that women reported 80-90% of domestic violence cases.

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, also in attendance, said that he was overwhelmed by the number of women who had contacted the ministry for free legal assistance. 

Zammit Lewis said Malta recorded a jump in cases of domestic violence, with about 15% more cases reported in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period the previous year. 

Women in employment

Cutajar said that women are also over-represented in sectors showing the most significant decline in employment.

She added that women also face a heavy workload at home, which could seriously affect women and girls' mental and physical well-being.

Cutajar highlighted that women who work remotely might face difficulties if they have to take care of young children. “Men’s telework tends to be prioritised, so they are exempted from household chores,” Cutajar said.

Cutajar said there was also an effect on women in the informal sector. “Women, persons with disabilities, migrant workers and displaced people tend to be over-represented in the informal economy sector.”

This group, Cutajar said, are less likely to have savings to support them, especially if living on daily payments – she added that women in informal jobs are more affected because of the gender pay gap.

“These workers are not covered by social protection for unemployment or sickness benefits,” Cutajar said.

Prostitutes and domestic workers

Cutajar said that the pandemic had exacerbated the livelihood and health threats of prostitutes – this is because they cannot respect social distance, have fewer earning opportunities, greater chances of abuse/getting infected, and are less likely to have savings.

Regarding domestic workers, Cutajar said that the power relation imbalance between domestic workers and employers might increase. “Live in domestic workers may need to work longer hours if employers and their children work and study from home,” Cutajar said, adding that the risk of infection was higher.

Cutajar said these workers may not have enough savings to return home or might not be able to due to border closures due to the pandemic and might not support themselves in foreign countries.

Impact on gender inequalities  

Cutajar said that escalating inequalities pandemic power shifts within households and societies might occur.

Cutajar said this might lead to an increase in gender-based economic violence and protection violations and an increase in race-based economic violence and protection violations.

“Gender-based economic violence may also be the consequence of men’s jobs loss,” Cutajar explained.

Cutajar said that women also have less access to the labour market and income-generating opportunities.

They are also more likely to be employed in an informal position with no access to social safety nets.

“Women are more likely to rely on less reliable sources of loan and financing compared to men,” Cutajar said.

Calls for wage increase

Cutajar said a remedy for this is a living wage income scheme, which should be used as a permanent structural instrument to protect the most disadvantaged.

Cutajar said it was also important to ensure that sickness benefits and paid sick leave was available to all workers, especially those in the informal economy, gig economy workers and self-employed workers.

“We also need to promote gender quality in the labour market. Strengthen care leave policies and family-friendly working time arrangements. Improve access to affordable childcare services and out of school services and care services,” Cutajar said.

Cutajar also said there should be an increase in the promotion of women’s entrepreneurship, women’s participation in managerial and leadership positions, and promote home and work environments free from violence and harassment.