While men and Black and Asian people are significantly more likely to die of Covid-19, women are already bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. Jenna Norman, the Public Affairs Officer at the UK Women’s Budget Group, a network who analyse the impact of economic policy on women and men, explains why.
Coronavirus is a public health crisis causing a global economic crisis. Like all emergencies, it collides with existing health and socio-economic inequalities which mean that although many people all over the world are now riding the same storm, they are doing so in very different boats.
Data is at the heart of understanding the unequal impact of Coronavirus on different groups. We now know that men and Black and Asian people are significantly more likely to suffer the fatal consequences of the virus. However, data also shows that it is women, especially low-paid, BAME, migrant and disabled women, who are already bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. In the longer term, there are some very worrying signs that the Coronavirus pandemic is also set to turn back the clock on gender equality in the UK.
From the outset, it has been clear that the majority of key workers are women. 77% of NHS and 83% of social care staff are women as well as 85% of teaching staff; women’s disproportionate employment in the public sector has meant they are the ones keeping the country running during this crisis. In fact, it is care work that is keeping the country running. This work has historically been undervalued, underpaid and increasingly relies on precarious working arrangements, like zero-hour contracts.
One study by the think tank Autonomy showed that of the key workers being paid beneath the poverty line, 98% of workers are women. Over a third of high-risk workers are low paid, that is they earn less 60% of median average earnings (less than £391 a week Full Time Equivalent.) Many of these people work on part-time and zero-hour contracts meaning their weekly pay is likely to be significantly lower in real terms.
There is cruel irony here in that many of the women most at risk of contracting Coronavirus may not qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) as you need to be earning £118 a week to qualify for a weekly SSP payment of £94.25. The median full-time weekly wage for a female care worker is £384.80 but many are part time and one in four are on zero hours contracts, so their actual pay will be well below this. This means many care workers cannot afford to stop working when they are sick.
The disaster that has played out in care homes up and down the country in recent months is in part the result of this low pay and instability in the sector. Lack of secure jobs has led to agency workers moving between care homes, and the homes of those needing care, putting both themselves and those they care for at risk. As of mid-May 2020, 131 care workers had died of Covid-19 and the ONS shows that care workers are twice as likely as non-key workers to die of the virus.
Unfortunately, there is a second cruel irony exposed by the pandemic: many of these key workers now putting their lives on the line to keep the British economy moving and save lives were not born in the UK. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that 1 in 4 care workers are born outside the UK. Some, who are born outside the EU have ‘no recourse to public funds’ so cannot claim Housing Benefit, Universal Credit or take refuge in a women’s shelter during the crisis.
In a show of immense hypocrisy, these vital workers would not qualify for a visa to work here under the government’s current immigration plans. This is because they have been deemed by the Home Secretary as ‘low-skilled’ and most would not meet the salary threshold (£20,480) to secure a visa. And, are paying for the NHS twice.
It is not just in the care sector where women are confronting the economic reality caused by Coronavirus. Data from the Resolution Foundation shows that women are 78% of those who have been made redundant since the crisis started while the IFS finds that 36% of young women were working in sectors which have been closed for months now including retail, hospitality and tourism.
Of course, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) or ‘furlough’ is successfully supporting many of those who cannot work during the pandemic. But what about those who have already lost their jobs or those who will in the future? Universal Credit is still paid at a very low rate by European standards, claimants still have to wait five weeks for a payment and the two-child limit and the benefit cap set arbitrary limits on who can benefit.
The gender division in unemployment are likely to be in part because of women’s overrepresentation in shut down sectors. However, there is also concern that those with caring responsibilities, who do not currently have access to full time childcare due to social distancing, and pregnant women could be first in line to lose their jobs due to discriminatory practice.
And, gender pay gap reporting has also been suspended. All of this is a perfect storm for the unequal impact of Coronavirus to last much longer than the virus itself, setting gender equality back years.
As well as a public health catastrophe, the Coronavirus outbreak has tested our decimated public services to the limits and exposed extreme socio-economic inequalities in our society, of race, of gender and of wealth. Looking ahead we must learn that we can do things differently, and we must: we desperately need a new settlement for the care sector as well as a new approach to whose work matters. We need all government departments and local authorities to think about gender inequalities in their recovery plans so that we can truly build back better.