Since before the COVID-19 pandemic, feminists across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been increasingly shedding light on the global shifts that will shape the Future of Work. From their perspective, those shifts would mainly be driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the impact of climate change and the looming global care crisis. However, they did not account for a global pandemic that would shake the world and drive the acceleration of those shifts, drastically changing the way we live and work and making various feminist concerns about the inclusion, empowerment, and security of women in the labour market more pressing than ever.
Across the world, strict measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the economic vulnerability of the most marginalized individuals and communities, and exacerbated their struggle to adapt when equipped with minimal resources, or none at all. While countless businesses, schools, and public services are digitalizing their processes to minimize human interaction, many women in the MENA region are finding themselves increasingly excluded from the labour market.
More often than not, women have less freedom of mobility and control over household resources than men. Therefore, barriers such as the lack of adequate broadband infrastructure, the spread of digital illiteracy and a wide digital gender divide are affecting women disproportionately. Because it offers more flexible working conditions, allowing women to simultaneously perform their unpaid care labour, women often choose informal employment, despite the lack of social security and protective labour policies. But because of the inadequacy in digital adaptation women of the region are left behind amidst the spread of online and platform-based gig work.
With the spread of digital technologies, online platforms and now the pandemic, a patriarchal narrative that encourages women to perform home-based work to attain “work-life balance” has been gaining ground. Despite claiming to advocate balance, that narrative fails to address the importance of re-distributing unpaid care work within the household and reinforces the stereotypical role of women as primary caregivers. In countries across the region where women are still too often confined to the private sphere, this is threatening years of progress towards overcoming the hurdles that limit women’s participation in the public sphere, especially in the workforce. Working mothers, therefore, continue to suffer a “motherhood penalty” as well as time poverty, which limit their chances to advance in their careers and perpetuate the perception that their paid labour is secondary to that of men’s.
To help lift the burden, outsourcing care work at home to less privileged women, often migrants, has become the norm whenever possible within various countries in the region. Under the kafala (sponsorship) system, however, the lives and labour of these women are exploited and abused. During the pandemic, their already precarious employment has become more so as hundreds of thousands of them faced income losses and worsening conditions. Additionally, most healthcare workers in the region are overworked and underpaid women who are now also facing major challenges that threaten their rights as well as their physical and mental health.
The expectations were, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, that the green economy would grow exponentially in the upcoming years. However, it is not yet clear whether the pandemic will accelerate or deaccelerate that growth, with hints suggesting that either can be true. Regardless, many issues of gender discrimination are limiting women’s ability to equally benefit from emerging opportunities within green sectors. Discrimination in laws related to land ownership and inheritance, precarious and dangerous working conditions, difficulty in entering high-paid jobs and the struggle to attain decision making positions, all greatly disadvantage women. This is especially true in the case of larger investments in renewable energy and agriculture as well as large-scale projects that aim to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The changes we see around us today make the feminist concerns about the Future of Work even more concerning. Not only because the foreseeable challenges are arriving much quicker than expected and with no adequate preparation, but also because decision makers have a historic tendency to deprioritize women’s issues and the gender equality agenda in times of crisis. This is the time for action.
The barriers that threaten the inclusion of women in a digitalized world of work must be eliminated. Moreover, larger investments in care services and jobs as well as the re-distribution of unpaid care work between the state, the community and the private sector must now become a priority. Lastly, existing gender discrimination must be addressed to ensure that a greener economy will not be a patriarchal one in order to guarantee equal opportunity for all in the future world of work.
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