Even coronavirus isn’t enough for us to value female care work

Until when will women bear the brunt of low-wage and unstable caretaking jobs?

Park Ju-yeon 2020-12-23

The devastating impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic upon our lives are only just beginning. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently predicted that the world will soon face the worst economic crisis known since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Korea, voices of concern about the economic upheaval to come and the extent of its devastation upon the domestic workforce grow by the day. Indeed, there have already been several significant economic indicators released showing the impact of the virus on global markets.

 

Yet one huge contributor to the global economy is continually excluded from current debate and analysis. This, of course, is care work.

 

The glaring absence of women in economic crisis indicators

 

“The number of female employees who were temporarily laid off this year was twice the number of male employees temporarily laid off. The number of women who received a leave of absence due to a downturn in sales and/or suspension of business operations was also four times higher than men.”

 

These statistics were presented by Advisory Committee Member Yoon-Ok Lim of the Korean Women's Workers' Association at the “COVID-19 and Gender” conference hosted by Korean Women's Associations United on May 12.

 

▲ A gender-based comparison of temporary leave increase/decrease between 2019 and 2020. Taken from the “COVID-19 and Gender” conference brochure, held at Seoul Women’s Center for Equality and Peace, Sotong Hall, May 12.


One reason why more women than men were laid off was that “a higher proportion of women work in part-time and irregular jobs , which means they were particularly vulnerable” to mass COVID-19-related redundancies. Yet an equally present factor was that women “are targeted to be ‘first-fired’ because of the perception that they can simply return to their position at home (with their families)”.

 

Another reason for these unequal statistics lies in the double caregiving burden placed upon women. As social distancing has become increasingly widespread, women have now become expected not only to stay vigilant in protecting themselves, but further, to be solely responsible in caring for their families. When deemed necessary, women are expected to willingly move out of the paid workforce and return full-time to their caretaking roles at home.

 

The closure of schools and cram academies with the coronavirus epidemic has additionally resulted in mothers attempting to educate and entertain their children on a twenty-four-hour basis. Female workers work full-time hours at home whilst simultaneously juggling household chores and caring for their children.

 

This intense workload inevitably becomes too much for the working mother. Soon or later, she is forced to ‘choose’ between focusing on her unpaid or her paid work role. But there is no real choice here. The working mother typically ends up prioritizing her family, and this results in these women disappearing from our global economic crisis indicators. Caring full-time for a family and home - or ‘women’s work’ - is still perceived as holding zero economic value. It is not understood or defined in a financial sense as labor.

 

▲ Press conference held by the Korean Women's Workers' Association and the National Women's Labor Union, on the 4th 'Wage Discrimination Day' (May 17). The conference included the performance “The Reality of Female Workers in the Pandemic”, calling for recognition of the social and economic value of female paid and unpaid care work. ©ILDA


Why has the employment rate of women in their 60s risen during the crisis? 

 

The category of ‘care work’ can in fact be found within our economic crisis indicators. But even here, the nature of most normal, everyday care work is not properly discussed or understood.

 

According to the National Statistics Office’s “Monthly Employment Trends: April 2020”, employment has declined by 470,600 workers compared to the same month last year, a decrease of 1.4% (from 60.8% in 2019 to 59.4% in 2020). At a 1.6% decrease for women and a 1.3% decrease for men, initially employment rates between female and male workers may seem incidental. An examination of gender employment divided by age, however, unveils a different story. For the age group struck hardest by unemployment - people in their twenties - employment rates for women reportedly decreased by 5.7%, while for men in the same age group, this was just 3.7%. Young women still struggle more than any other demographic in finding paid employment.

 

The only age/gender group in which employment increased was women in their sixties. The number of women working in their sixties saw an increase of 0.9%, while men in their sixties experienced a decrease in employment of 0.2%.

 

Employment rates across different career fields are also attention-worthy. The number of workers in healthcare and social welfare services rose by 3.5%, a higher increase than even that seen in the transportation and warehouse industries (2.4%).

 

What we find then, is that in an era emphasizing the newfound importance of social distancing, the numbers of both older female workers in their sixties and workers in the healthcare and social welfare fields have risen.

 

“If we look at the past jobs of older age groups in Korea, we can see that ten years ago, the majority of jobs were in business facilities and business support services centered on agriculture forestry, wholesales, retail, cleaning, and security. Today, however, employment in the healthcare and social welfare sectors has increased significantly, with most of these being jobs in caregiving services, such as nursing, and public welfare facilities.’” (Bok-sun Kim, Korea Labor Institute, Monthly Workers Review,  Dec. 2016 – “Trends of the Labor Market for Older Workers (55-79) in 2016”)

 

Taking the above into account, it therefore seems fairly simple to predict where a woman in her sixties will be working today - as a caretaker in the public welfare sector.

 

In an era of infectious disease, care workers are filling gaps in the labor market

 

During the “COVID-19 and Gender” conference, Professor Nanjoo Yang from the Department of Social Welfare at Daegu University stated:

 

“When the COVID-19 situation began, I was concerned as to whether all types of essential care services would temporarily be stopped. How would the elderly and people with disabilities, who had previously depended on such services, continue to live? Would workers and assistants in visiting nurse care services suddenly lose their jobs? I was surprised to discover, however, that these services were still continuing as normal.”

 

▲ Professor Nanjoo Yang from the Department of Social Welfare, Daegu University, gives a presentation entitled “Caretaking in the Age of Epidemic” at the “COVID-19 and Gender” conference, May 12.  ©Korean Women's Associations United


“Carers in nursing facilities typically work in enclosed environments centered around communal over private spaces. These vulnerable individuals further are expected to provide nursing services and protect others from infection without proper training or related experience. There are further unresolved problems in the case of visiting nurses, too, regarding who and how to treat self-isolating elderly people and people with disabilities.”

 

Despite being recorded as a significant contributor to increasing employment rates, however, the realities and hardships of these carers is still rarely discussed. Professor Yang also pointed out that “care workers in institutional areas, such as carers in nursing, are frequently denied the right to safe work conditions, despite the otherwise widespread concern about risks of infection.’”

 

With around “95 percent of registered long-term care workers in the public care system in 2018 being women”, the care work profession further remains highly gendered. “The problems of carers aren’t just that they tend to either work long hours for low wages or short hours for low wages. Female carers further suffer from unstable employment, and find that their work experience is not recognized or acknowledged.” While the rest of the world engages in social distancing, it is our carers who continue to fill widening gaps in the labor market while facing the dangers of coronavirus head on. 

 

Making care work safe and stable

 

The COVID-19 era clearly shows that care work is invaluable and essential to both the private and public sectors. Yet, “our domestic COVID-19 policy is entirely focused on ‘maintaining jobs’ and ‘income support’. As of yet, there has been almost no discussion whatsoever on care work.” (Kyung Ah Shin, Professor of Social Science, Hallym University).

 

The onslaught of this global pandemic, however, may finally create an opportunity to start an in-depth and much-needed discussion about care work.

 

“Rather than entrusting care work entirely to somebody else, we need to collectively acknowledge the value of caregiving and begin the work of redistributing it among us. In addition, care work in public services should be made into jobs that guarantee employment and safety and that anyone could choose as their full-time job.” (Nanjoo Yang, Professor of Social Welfare, Daegu University)

 

By Park Ju-yeon

Translated by Chloe Sherliker

Published May 22, 2020

 

*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8736

 

◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English-language blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

기사입력 : 2020-12-23

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