(In)Decent work in the wake of Covid-19

May 21, 2020

In partnership with Hivos, Every Girl In School Alliance conducted a Twitter Chat on ‘Decent Work’ under the Women@Work campaign. This article is a merging of different views, perspectives and experiences of the people who took part in the Twitter Chat.

By Rugare Zimunya

Productive employment and decent work are key elements to achieving a fair globalization and poverty reduction. The International Labour Organisation developed an agenda for the community of work looking at job creation, rights at work, social protection and social dialogue, with gender equality as a crosscutting objective.

Decent work embodies the integration of social and economic goals including the promotion of rights, employment, security and social dialogue within a framework that supports both investment and economic growth.

The fourth industrial revolution has transformed the world of work and the interactions between individuals and their social, political, and economic environment. As always, it is critical that we question how inclusive this revolution has been for all groups of working people, including women and more specifically, women in informal work.

Now, before we dive into the realities of the world of work for women in times of a pandemic or crisis. It is important that we are on the same page in regards to where we currently are in regards to the fight for women’s decent work. It is important to know what decent work looks like currently for women, especially in informal sectors such as farming and unpaid care work.

There is a gap in understanding what decent work refers to. Most of us have been conditioned to accept terrible work conditions as standard work conditions, as long as the earnings are sufficient to provide the minimum requirements for living.

In Africa, particularly, there is a romanticization of hard work as character building and that the harder someone works, the bigger the dividends later in life. This perpetuates a train of thought, that if one is able to persevere through these conditions, then they will be able to transcend them when the time is right.

This glorification of harsh working conditions leads to workers accepting labour abuse, which prevents them from challenging the status quo.

Decent work is employment that is fair, dignified, stable and secure. Work that respects the fundamental rights of the person in terms of work conditions, safety and remuneration. Decent work is dignified as it allows ones’ worth as a human to be recognized and respected, pays a fair wage in accordance with tasks carried out, is free from violence and protects one from harm in the line of work).

The reality however, is that women are over-represented in occupations with low pay and limited or no social protection. They are more likely to have part-time/seasonal jobs in the informal economy with poor working conditions and, sometimes, physical or sexual exploitation. Where women are represented in workplaces, they are hardly at management level where decision making occurs therefore their contribution is entirely subjective to management interests.

Desperation takes center stage during recruitments; something that employers have always taken advantage of to gain cheap labour. This is utterly wrong and it dehumanizes the workforce.

As it stands, in the absence of a pandemic, decent work for women is already threatened. The pandemics and crises only exacerbate the already difficult working conditions.

Though resource rich, our colonial history has ensured that we are still tethered to that past, with no real agency and power to negotiate for ourselves and this has sustained poverty and indecent working conditions.  We still depend on those economies for a lot of our trade. This leaves workers as pawns to be haggled over and traded.  The #COVID-19 pandemic has heightened these vulnerabilities as women make up majority of these groups which are most at risk of losing their jobs and income.

The pandemic has called for several safety measures to ensure safety at work such as working from home and online working.  However, it seems in efforts to protect the health of women, these measures are the very same threats to job security for women whose work cannot be conducted from home or online such as women in informal work or women in farming.

Women face unequal access to employment opportunities even in informal sectors. Jobs for many women in the informal sector are threatened. There is a take it or leave it situation which in essence is a propagation of indecency.

In this time of a global pandemic, it is critical that even as governments respond to the safety needs of the people, that they ensure the provision of economic stimulus packages. Businesses, & the people who run them, are engines of the economy therefore income protection can ease these dilemmas, sustain incomes and avoid driving households into poverty. To secure decent work, we need businesses to have income to pay workers.

Social dialogue is also key in responding to Covid-19 realities for women in the world of work. Consultation and collaboration among governments, workers and employers and their representatives – is essential. If responses are to be effective and sustainable, they have to be built on trust and a wide range of experiences.