The coronavirus is heaping yet more unpaid labour on women – and this is how

As cases of the virus increase, the workload does too. From caring for sick relatives to reassuring family members, the government is yet to show it’s equipped to ease this growing issue

Dawn Butler
Sunday 08 March 2020 13:15 GMT
Coronavirus: Empty supermarket shelves amid panic buying

A study published earlier this week by the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) found that the unpaid labour of 18- to 30-year-old women could contribute £140bn to the economy. The figures might be new, but the general trend isn’t. Women have been doing unpaid labour for centuries; from raising children and household maintenance to remembering birthdays.

Particularly prominent is the unpaid care work (UCW) that women undertake, estimated to be at 75 per cent globally. And while this has finally come to light as an issue, little is being done to address it.

UCW is especially pressing in the context of coronavirus. The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) divides UCW into three parts: domestic work within the household, caregiving work to household members, and community services/help to other households. As cases of the virus increase globally and in the UK, all aspects of UCW are accentuated: from caring for sick relatives, to reassuring your children, family and friends amid the panic, to looking after a sick friend’s child. And with the NHS already stretched to an unacceptable and dangerous 94 per cent bed occupancy rate, should the government fail to contain the spread of the virus, it seems only a matter of time before the majority of caregiving to those with the virus happens at home.

These burdens do and will fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. What will our government do to address this not just now, but in the long term?

All of the government’s policies have led to in-work poverty and insecure working conditions. After publishing the results of its research the YWT is calling on the British government to properly recognise the contributions women make, starting with increasing the carer’s allowance a benefit paid to people on low incomes who look after someone for 35 hours a week or more.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto included policies that addressed the ongoing problem unpaid carers face. We proposed an increase in paid maternity leave, suggesting a raise from nine months to 12, as well as doubling paternity leave from two weeks to four. We also included an extension on the time period for applying for maternity discrimination to the employment tribunal, increasing it from three to six months.

These policies would ensure that women have access to the help, legal redress and pay they deserve in the year that follows their giving birth, a time where mothers often feel most vulnerable.

Labour also proposed significant transformations within the workplace, requiring that all large employers offer flexible working hours, including a menopause policy, giving women time and flexibility without the worry of losing out on pay.

A policy like this now would allow the containment of the coronavirus to be more achievable.

Responsibility for childcare falls heavily on women, and we know full well that child poverty is linked to women’s poverty. We cannot, therefore, ignore the advice from the Social Metrics Commission to ensure that childcare costs are factored in when measuring poverty. The question will be whether the government will acknowledge this in the Budget this week.

Getting childcare right will go a long way towards tackling poverty and addressing gender inequalities. The current system is too fragmented and simply isn’t working. We are lagging behind our European neighbours and the fact that UK childcare costs are among the highest in the OECD isn’t acceptable. The Tories closing up to 1,000 Sure Start centres and hollowing out others over the past decade has only set us back further.

So arguably the most significant proposal we made over the election was to extend free childcare. We desperately need an ambitious investment in social infrastructure that includes universal childcare. Only a radical approach will change the status quo. Again, with days to go until the Budget, I call on the government to address this as a matter of urgency.

Labour is firmly committed to lifting women and children out of poverty and we want to raise aspirations. Labour also wants to create a department for Women and Equalities, the shadow department of which currently exists and which I lead. All too often, women’s issues are ignored or sidelined, or integrated into policies that have other priorities. Labour knows that this isn’t good enough.

We need a dedicated team to tackle the impact of longstanding, embedded patriarchal systems. We need voices of a diverse group of women at the forefront of policy. And we need to listen to organisations like YWT when they publish research that shows such vast inequalities between men and women.

For now though, on International Women’s Day, a good place to start might be to say thank you to the women in your life. It’s the least they deserve.

Dawn Butler is MP for Brent Central and shadow secretary of state for women and equalities

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in