In Canada today, the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing some glaring and unflattering truths about the value we accord to specific types of essential labour in capitalist society. In the face of what has been termed the first “she-cession,” we see that on one hand, vulnerable workers in highly feminized, poorly paid jobs connected to care work are facing dramatically inflated rates of COVID-19 infection, while on the other hand, female-dominated sectors like child care, education, retail, personal services and restaurant workers are among the hardest hit by widespread job losses. All this suggests that when labour is feminized it is structurally undervalued and even delegitimized. The COVID-19 crisis further exposes the ways that this process puts workers in harm’s way, by requiring disproportionately more from them than the monetary value accorded to their labour suggests.
A crisis of care provisioning
In a recent blog post, Nancy Folbre, a feminist economist, highlights how the market-driven assumptions behind care provision in the United States are failing, at the critical expense of care workers. This holds true in Canada as well, particularly in the case of the many private and for-profit sites for long-term care provision for frail elderly and disabled populations. Folbre notes that the financial case for providing care to the elderly is a weak one at best, with costs rising exponentially due to COVID-19. She advocates for a “care theory of value,” noting that considerations beyond profit often motivate the care economy. Care providers who are not motivated by financial gain include the state, private families and individuals motivated by a desire to help others.
In the case of care workers in Canada, who disproportionately comprise immigrants and women of colour, the early elevated rates of coronavirus among this workforce — particularly low wage, insecure and non-unionized workers — forces us to see the critical mistake of devaluing paid care. Government austerity programs and for-profit care provision have both placed workers (as well as many care recipients) in highly vulnerable positions. This is clearer than ever in the time of a dangerous pandemic putting pressure on workers who cannot afford time away from work to protect themselves and are also working with medically susceptible populations without adequate personal protective equipment. The shocking mortality of seniors in Quebec care facilities in the first months of the COVID-19 crisis is the predictable result of these pressures.
The value of paid care work, especially that which has been deemed “low skill” such as personal support workers, nurse aides and orderlies, takes on a wholly different character in the current crisis — these are the individuals doing some of the most “dirty,” difficult and increasingly dangerous jobs. Extensive scholarship suggests that care workers are paid less than other workers with comparable education and experience, and that many of these workers endure a double or even triple wage disadvantage as migrant and racialized women, some of whom hold precarious immigration statuses.
In the COVID-19 context, additional pressures on care workers are brought to bear. While abrupt layoffs are one effect, equally serious are those workers who continue to labour under unsafe conditions and an intensification of work. Many for-profit long-term care providers, for example, offer their employees only limited hours to avoid paying their staff benefits associated with full-time employment, even during a time when there is a clear undersupply of labour. This also expands beyond the medical field, and includes support workers who keep these institutions running. Cleaners or food preparation workers are now on the front lines of this crisis, and like care workers, are also disproportionately racialized women working for low pay. This changes how we think about risk and the workplace as the pandemic increasingly places all kinds of workers who did not choose care work in dangerous conditions.
The feminization of service sector decline
At the same time as we see this crisis in care provisioning unfold, other data highlights the widespread layoffs and high unemployment within the feminized service sector, especially food services and accommodation/travel, as well as retail and personal services. Some provincial governments are using the pandemic as a justification for ideologically driven cuts to education and other social services (which again will disproportionately affect female workers and female clients). Unemployment statistics also typically underestimate women who have been impacted by economic decline but are unable to actively seek paid work due to heightened childcare and other familial caring responsibilities. This is all part of a sustained move towards increased austerity and privatization, deployed under the cover of a health crisis.
Certainly, Canada’s emerging she-cession has hit female workers and poor people in a disproportionate manner. This is intimately connected to the rise of precarious work and the resultant gig economy. Precarious employment — work that is insecure, offers limited protections and benefits, and allows workers minimal autonomy, recourse, or control — is on the rise, with contingent effects that are often shouldered disproportionately by people who are the most marginalized. Precarious work in Canada results from structural changes in the labour market, including the weakening of union power, the decline of state intervention and growing corporate control. Women in Canada’s service sector are more likely to work part time and for multiple employers, are typically low wage, and like care workers, disproportionately comprise immigrants and women of colour.
As women suffer in the current economic context, specifically in the service sector, economist Armine Yalnizyan notes that there is a need for governments to improve existing income supports to prevent desperate and counter-productive economic survival plans. Low wage self-employed workers and others forced to the margins of the workforce (e.g. those working in the informal or grey economy) are particularly vulnerable and in need of support. This assistance must be meaningful, adequate,and sustained. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit of $2,000 per month for affected workers is an important step. But the benefit also raises some troubling questions about the most poorly paid workers in Canada who are paid less than the amount of the monthly assistance program. What is a livable wage? What constitutes “essential” labour? And, how do we account for front-line workers in retail, cleaning and food production who earn less than the standardized minimum assistance offered to other workers in the economy?
Ultimately, the limited or negligible rights, benefits and protections we provide to undervalued female workers is not only fundamentally inequitable and indefensible at the level of individuals: it threatens each of us in society as we face a crisis requiring these exact forms of labour. During the COVID-19 pandemic any one of us may require care to weather this crisis or face individual risk (both health and financial) in providing care to others. This global pandemic should be taken as a warning for Canada on the urgent need to include the voices and expertise of vulnerable female workers — both in planning for a better way forward after the pandemic, and in improving existing conditions and labour standards in the workforce, recognizing that no work is inessential or marginal.
Naomi Lightman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on care work, migration and gender. She is the co-author of the second edition of the textbook Social Policy in Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @naomilightman.
Ted McCoy is a historian and an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Calgary. He is on Twitter at @tedmccoy.