SA’s coronavirus recovery plan should consider value of women’s ‘invisible’ work

The South African government still needs to drawing up a just transition plan that will support workers who are likely to lose their jobs as the country moves its economy away from dependence on carbon-emitting production, such as mining and downstream industries. But the coronavirus lockdown has shown the invisible contribution that women’s labour makes to the economy. Could the country’s coronavirus stimulus package be a chance to add women’s work into the country’s ledger books? Leonie Joubert takes a closer look.

South Africa’s economy has suffered due to the corona pandemic. (Public Domain)

By late May, as fears that the advancing southern hemisphere winter will accelerate the spread of the coronavirus in South Africa, the country is approaching one of the longest and hardest lock-downs globally.

The country’s economy is expected to contract by about 6 per cent this year, as a result of the slow-down in production, with as many as a million people possibly losing their jobs. Economists are also trying to estimate the impact at a household level, as workers in many sectors lose wages as all non-essential workers are instructed to stay at home with their families to slow the spread of the disease.

Those people who can continue working from home are discovering how difficult it is to maintain any semblance of normal routine or productivity while they juggle childcare, home schooling, and housekeeping chores during their upended work days.

This has shown up just how time consuming childcare and house work are, and how women still carry the burden of these chores. It also shows up how flawed ‘gross domestic product’ (GDP) is as a measure of an economy’s health. The cost of the wages that should be paid to miners, for instance, is easy to add up because their employers’ ledger books carefully count the number of hours worked each day, and the money exchanged for those hours. The hours spent by the miners’ wives getting the children ready for school, caring for parents, or cooking the meals every day, are not.

This is why the contraction of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, and how the government spends its proposed stimulus package, is essentially a feminist issue, according to Busi Sibeko, a researcher and economist at the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) in South Africa.

‘The formal economy has stopped producing,’ she said during a recent webinar on the stimulus package unveiled by the government in April, which will inject R500 billion into the economy to jump-start it again. This amounts to 10 per cent of the country’s GDP.

‘But there is still production happening at a household level,’ she said, ‘even if this production does not earn an income, it still helps the economy.’

Women’s invisible work

In her new book Difficult Women: a History of Feminism in 11 Fights, British journalist and feminist author Helen Lewis gives a whole chapter to the implications for women as they still carry the bulk of the workload when it comes to caring for children and the elderly, and housekeeping. This work is something that is expected of women, rather than something society allows them to choose. It is time consuming and burdensome labour that is indispensable to society — as the coronavirus lockdown has shown — and yet it interrupts women’s education and job prospects, eats into their leisure time more than a man’s job eats into his, and often leaves her financially dependent on her husband.

Imagine how different the economy would look, and how much more autonomy women would have in their lives, Lewis argues, if these hours of work resulted in money in their pockets.

It is time for the notion of ‘work’ to be redefined, she says, echoing the call of decades of feminist advocacy.

‘Work isn’t what creates value for an employer, but what creates a society and takes up a person’s time.’

Climate justice and SA’s coronavirus stimulus package

In the short-term, Sibeko argues that some of the government’s financial rescue package must extend beyond the current support for children, which is paid to the parents, but should also go towards social grants for pregnant women.

Investing social support money on children has ‘high value’, says Sibeko, and an IEJ analysis released in April shows that if these grants extend to pregnant women, an additional 670 000 people will be able to lean on the state during this economic and public health crisis.

But once this crisis is over, South Africa needs long-term structural changes to the economy, if it hopes to achieve climate justice, the panellists in the webinar argued.

‘This needs to take care work seriously,’ says Sibeko.

Women’s labour, the full value of this unpaid care work, needs to be calculated in terms of its contribution to the economy and could be supported through increased social grants.

Another way for a country to relieve women of the economic fallout of having to carry the burden of this unpaid care work is for countries to invest in the ‘care economy’. This should come in the form of providing affordable and accessible childcare for children aged between three and five years, and care support for the elderly.

A 2016 study by the International Trade Union Confederation, looking at seven countries and including South Africa, shows that an investment of 2% of their GDP in the care economy has the potential to create ‘over 21 million jobs and help countries overcome the twin challenges of ageing populations’.

But considerations of a just transition plan for workers at risk of losing their jobs in South Africa, as the country aims to lower its carbon emissions, largely only considers those in the carbon-intense industries at the heart of the South African economy. These are largely in the mining and downstream industrial processes, which are mostly jobs done by men. Women are still invisible in this important discussion.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.

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