Women need a new world of welfare and work

Covid-19 recovery plan must address supports for those not on live register

When hours spent on paid employment are accounted for, women still carry out more hours of care than men. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

When hours spent on paid employment are accounted for, women still carry out more hours of care than men. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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By almost every measure, the impact of Covid-19 has been felt most by women. Now is our chance to fundamentally rethink the world of work, and welfare, to build a more equal post-pandemic society.

Women make up the majority of employees in sectors such as hospitality and retail, hardest hit by unemployment caused by lockdown. Our labour market is highly segregated by gender, and women are also overrepresented in jobs that cannot be done remotely. Furthermore, the closure of schools and creches has further impacted on women’s care responsibilities, as has the added responsibility of caring and supporting older family members to cocoon.

Data from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection shows that women, young people and migrant workers are dominating the sectors that have lost their jobs and will be the hardest hit in trying to regain employment. This means that as we plan our back-to-work strategy, it must be explicitly gendered in its intent.

Orla O’Connor is the director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Ireland’s largest women’s membership organisation

So far debate has been limited, focusing on levels of the pandemic unemployment payment, and for how long can the payment continue. But it needs to be broadened – a return to the regular system of welfare will not support women nor address persistent structural inequalities.

This is not simply about the inadequate rates of payments, but also that our current welfare system is based on a traditional male breadwinner model. It is a model that is centred on full-time working, that always disadvantaged women, by making them dependants on male partners without direct access to payments and unequal access to employment supports. A direct result is that more than 95 per cent of qualified adults – what the welfare system calls dependant adults – are women.

Early-years care

A further major complication is, of course, the fact that women still carry a disproportionate responsibility for all forms of care. The choices women can make with regard to employment are severely limited due to lack of a public infrastructure of early-years care and because men have not taken equal responsibility within families. Recent Central Statistics Office data showed that, in 2019, 94 per cent of those whose principal economic status is looking after home and family were women. When hours spent on paid employment are accounted for, women still carry out more hours of care than men. What this means is that women are more likely to be stuck in low-paid and low-skilled employment, and this is particularly true for lone parents.

Covid 19 has brought home the high risks of poverty and deprivation faced by lone parents

Previously, labour activation in Ireland has required full availability for work, and has not been hugely effective at lowering women’s unemployment. For example, the number of women remaining on the live register in February this year stood at 79,020, considerably higher than the 63,760 in February 2007. While this partly reflects more lone parents on the live register due to the unacceptable changes in the lone-parent payments, it also tells us that there was a slower decline in the number of unemployed women than men during the economic recovery.

While recent employment rates among lone parents in Ireland have been increasing, Covid 19 has brought home the high risks of poverty and deprivation faced by lone parents, and the inadequacy of supports to access quality, high-paid employment. It is crucial that our activation policies acknowledge and accommodate the importance of care in for those dependent on the welfare system for their incomes, including supporting legitimate decisions to work part time.

Now is the time for an ambitious approach to both welfare and work, one that counts women in

There is a real concern now that coping with Covid-19 will reinforce traditional care roles, meaning that unemployed women in the short term will respond to care and domestic needs and may not look for work again, and as such, will be counted as “economically inactive”. It is crucial that these women remain attached to the labour force, with access to relevant education and training to access quality employment. Our recovery plan must address the issue of supports for those not registered or in receipt of a jobseeker payment.

Individualised approach

The pandemic unemployment payment demonstrates how it is possible to administer an individual payment for all workers. This individualised approach is crucial to ensure women and men are paid in their own right and have individual entitlement to benefits and supports that accompany the unemployment payment. It must be our approach gong forward. The payment also recognises that the level of the social welfare payments is inadequate to maintain a decent standard of living. Women with individual pandemic unemployment payments stand to lose most in a return to a household payment, where eligibility does not take account of part-time work and care.

Now is the time for an ambitious approach to both welfare and work, one that counts women in, and accommodates part-time and flexible work, and the importance of care. This is our chance to reorganise our model of work and be ambitious in building a welfare system that benefits all in our society.

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