Migrant and Informal Workers
We also know that women make up a significant share of low-wage workers in the manufacturing sectors – garment workers, food processors, and line workers – as well as employees in the service sectors such as food services, hospitality, and tourism. Many more women work in the informal sector as smallholder farmers, own-account workers, house cleaners, childcare workers, and micro-entrepreneurs. Smallholder farmers, who comprise large share of workers in low-income contexts and who often sell goods in cross-border exports, may be especially hard hit as borders close.
During the Ebola epidemics, the economies of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone suffered significant short- and long-term losses due to border closures shutting down critical regional markets and trade. Migrant workers working on commercial farms or in factories across a border needed to return home, severely limiting their economic opportunities as well as halting much-needed remittances to families abroad.
Informal work and low-wage employment lack a social safety net such as paid sick leave, parental leave, or retirement contributions. Economic shocks brought on by ceasing regional and global production will have ripple effects on households as girls are pulled and remain out of school to help out at home, take on unpaid caring duties or household duties left vacant by another family member, or married off early to relieve the family of another mouth to feed. Any long-term economic projections on impact from the pandemic must include these unseen costs to families and communities.
What Governments Need to Do
As governments in the Global North prepare to run historic deficits and raise debt ceilings to address the crisis, developing country governments should also prepare to invest in
- Bolstering supplies and income for front line health workers, and
- Providing forms of relief that do not rely on existing relationships to the paid economy.
Now is the time to move beyond conventional measures such as the extension of low-interest loans for existing businesses or wage subsidies to those already in the labor-force to forms of universal basic income payments for every adult. Anything less would channel relief largely through men and reinforce the kinds of negative gendered impacts discussed above. This crisis could be an opportunity for governments in the Global South to both make critical investments in health care infrastructure and address gendered economic inequalities.
Strong preparation for the gender- and poverty-driven aftershocks of the pandemic requires multilateral collaboration from local and global policymakers in efforts such as assessments of critical weaknesses and gaps in healthcare coverage; international aid that does not undermine social protection and in fact builds on these systems worldwide; and ensuring leadership opportunities for communities most impacted and therefore most capable of identifying their own needs – especially women.
As governments design their stimulus programs and prepare much-needed relief for their citizens, both pragmatic and justice-driven considerations for those in the Global South mandate robust preparations for a multilateral response. Amongst the many things we have learned from past epidemics, an often-overlooked lesson emerges – that we are truly all in this together, and that our health and wealth depend intimately upon the health and well-being of the least fortunate among us.
About the authors:
Julia Arnold is the financial inclusion and livelihoods specialist with the economic empowerment team at ICRW. She conducts research and evaluations on women’s economic empowerment, gender inequality, and financial inclusion.
Elizabeth Anderson is a Research and Evaluation Specialist at ICRW and is working with the Global Health, Youth and Development team. Prior to joining ICRW, Elizabeth was a Research Associate with the University of Arizona Medication Management Center.
Smriti Rao is a Professor of Economics and Global Studies at Assumption College, Worcester MA, and Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. She teaches development economics and conducts research on the interaction between gender inequality and economic inequality, particularly in India.
Sarah Gammage is a Policy Director for Latin America with the Nature Conservancy. She has more than 25 years of experience working on gender and development in Latin America, Africa and Asia. She has a PhD in Environmental Economics from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and a Masters’ degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science.