Leave no woman behind

May 25, 2020
Women are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 economic pain.

In addition to facing a sharp — and in some instances deadly — upsurge in domestic violence women are also bearing the brunt of COVID-19 economic pain.

A joint Melbourne University and La Trobe University study, based on April Australian Bureau of Statistics labour force figures, showed that nearly 16% of women lost their jobs that month, compared with 11% of men.

Women were less likely than men to be working at home with their hours and pay unchanged. It also said that women were suffering more from sleep disturbance, and that they expressed more fear about funding their retirement.

The Life During Lockdown study found one in three women were more anxious compared with one in five men and 20% of mothers said they were anxious “most of the time”, compared with 14% of fathers. One in five women (20%) were “very worried” about retirement, compared with 16% of men and 59% of women were worried about having enough money, compared with 54% of men.

These worries are based in women’s material conditions, and concerns have been expressed, including by the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, that women’s disproportionate economic hardship during the pandemic could lead to their long-term poverty.

Fear of such poverty traps leave many women in abusive relationships.

Despite being a rich country, Australia’s workplace is still highly gender segregated. In the initial phase of the pandemic, women lost their jobs at twice the rate of men because the industries that were forced to close — hospitality, retail and service and arts industries — were overwhelming being run by women. These industries survive with lower-paid, casual workforces.

In other industries where women are overwhelmingly concentrated, such as in front line nursing and teaching work, they have had to step up and take on extra responsibilities in making the pandemic regulations “fit for purpose” on the ground.

All this extra work was done without any extra pay and, for many, also juggling the extra stresses that came with home schooling, where women, too, took most responsibility.

“Men did not face the same dual economy of idleness and intensive work, or the social expectation to teach their children”, is how George Megalogenis put it, adding that construction, manufacturing and mining have been left relatively unscathed and “are well placed for recovery”.

Women are faring a lot worse in this “pink collar” recession compared with the recession of the early 1980s and 1990s when manufacturing was hardest hit. The Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests that the unemployment rates for men and women will diverge sharply, with women bearing the brunt this time.

Considering that the JobKeeper scheme is under subscribed by $60 billion, there is absolutely no excuse for women being made to pay for the pandemic. Neither is there any excuse for leaving out migrant workers, overseas students and universities from COVID-19 economic relief. By the government's own admission, it has the money to do something about it.

“The money, as I said, is borrowed money,” offered federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar as an excuse for not reallocating the unused $60 billion to address sectors of the community that are still desperately in need of relief.

But that is a poor excuse.

The borrowed money can be paid back over time, and even faster if the government was prepared to tax the corporate rich instead of lavishing tax cuts and subsidies on them.

Australia’s latest anti-tax avoidance laws have not been able to stop the practices of companies, such as Facebook and Google, from channelling hefty amounts of advertising revenue via low-tax countries such as Singapore. Last year, for instance, Google managed to avoid paying tax in Australia on $4.8 billion in mostly advertising revenue by booking it to Google Asia in low-tax Singapore.

Green Left believes no one should be left behind in this pandemic. Society clearly has the resources to provide all the relief needed. What is missing is the political will.

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