A feminist twist to Labour Day in times of COVID-19

On this Labour Day we must recognise that feminism cannot be isolated from workers’ rights and class solidarity. These relationships are essential to the reproduction of feminist politics and ultimately achieving gender and socio-economic equality. In fact, despite often being separated from its politicized roots in recent decades, with a shift to corporatize feminism, International Women’s Day has its origins in early 20th century socialist women’s movements and the struggle against oppressive working conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide response of lockdown and reduction of economic activities to what is deemed ‘essential work’ have only highlighted the monstrous inequalities that characterise our globalised societies. The very inequalities against which people have been revolting across the Arab region, from Algeria to Sudan, to Lebanon, Iraq and beyond, demanding social and economic justice.

On the other hand, since the beginning of the crisis, one worry echoes in the mouths of the global elite “What about the Economy?”

This tweet is a brilliant response to such accounts:

It cannot be unseen that in what are considered “essential” jobs, women are over-represented, and heavily underpaid, making 70% of the health workforce but only 25% of senior roles. Worldwide, women are over-represented in informal and vulnerable employment and bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work by spending around 2.5 times more time on unpaid care and domestic work than men. The naturalization of this type of work as ‘feminine’ justifies its low or non-existent pay. However, it is estimated to amount for for $10.8 trillion annually, three times the size of the world’s tech industry.

In Lebanon, a majority of the 250,000 migrant domestic workers ruled by the Kafala system are women. With the lockdown measures and the worsening economic crisis, these women are left at the hand of their employees, some of which have been withholding their salary using the excuse of the economic crisis. In this situation, they are also faced with the increase in domestic violence, with associations reporting an increase of 180% in the number of calls to report gender-based violence. Some of them are undocumented and therefore fear seeking any help or medical treatment.

2020, the year we celebrate 129 years of International Workers’ Day, is the time to finally put in practice the ‘4Rs’ framework laid by feminist economists, civil societies and care advocates to radically transform our economy.

We must:

  1. Recognize unpaid and poorly paid care work, which is done primarily by women and girls, as a type of work or production that has real value.
  2. Reduce the total number of hours spent on unpaid care tasks through better access to affordable and quality time-saving devices and care-supporting infrastructure.
  3. Redistribute unpaid care work more fairly within the household and simultaneously shift the responsibility of unpaid care work to the state and the private sector.
  4. Represent the most marginalized caregivers and ensure that they have a voice in the design and delivery of policies, services and systems that affect their lives.

This crisis has shown that marginalized populations who occupy the majority of low-wage jobs are the ones on the frontlines in times of crisis. They are depicted as heroes by political leaders, and used as a pawn in the empty appeals to the working class and “ordinary citizens”. Such praise comes notwithstanding the lack of social and financial gain despite years of constant activism and calls for reform.

The struggle for gender equality is fundamentally inextricable with workers’ rights, and we must recognise and promote this class consciousness in our fight for gender equality. Similarly, it is vital that the labour movement recognise and aim to rectify the structural factors that cause the invisibility of women’s’ paid and unpaid work. It is only through collective action recognising a joint and intertwined struggle, that our movements can be successful in our fight against the neoliberal patriarchal global economic system.

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