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Costs of recession subsidised by women

Friday, March 11, 2016
Diary of a mothering worker

In this rough monetary moment, the conversations we have about the economy are more important than ever. We could focus on issues of debt to GDP ratios. The debt-to-GDP ratio is over 60 per cent for 12 of 20 Caribbean countries; over 80 per cent for six countries; and over 100 per cent for four. Indeed it’s the pressure of debt payments that prevents Caribbean countries from affording development projects and social programmes.

We could focus on the importance of investment to economic growth. Investment provides funds needed by industries to provide jobs, create wealth and pay taxes. 

But we are at risk of invisibilising other indicators. When countries focus on debt reduction, who carries the costs and how are those measured? When we rely on profit-seeking investment to drive economic growth, what might we fail to discuss in terms of environmental, labour, health and other costs?

Starting from the perspective of women’s labour can show what such indicators hide. From this perspective, the global and national economy is fundamentally gendered, meaning that the roles that women play in both private and public spheres aren’t incidental, but central to how the economy is organised and experienced. 

For example, women often devise survival strategies for their families using their unpaid time and labour to absorb the effects of economic crises, such as industry shrinkage, or higher food prices, or prescriptions such as debt reduction.

More than men, they perform uncounted, non-unionised and unwaged home-based labour, and have greater responsibility for care of children, and the disabled and elderly, particularly where health and social services are inadequate. Such economic exploitation within households reinforces women’s exploitation in the waged economy, where women predominate in the five Cs: caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. 

These women are more vulnerable to poverty and relationship violence because they are more economically dependent, particularly when traditionally male-dominated jobs are being lost.

When women take work to make ends meet, they may experience the absence of a social infrastructure permitting women to combine work with family life. Additionally, women’s clustering in service sectors, unemployment, and informal jobs, which are often considered less skilled or valuable than hitting a ball with a bat, is highly exploitative and feature low wages, poor working conditions and little opportunity for security or advancement. 

In this context, economic problems and prescriptions are likely to have an asymmetrical impact on women and men because they have different relationships to labour in informal and formal spheres, and in reproduction and production.

Reflecting on this, Caribbean feminist Eudine Barriteau writes, “Constructing economic analyses around households should force development planners to move beyond exploiting the resources of women to costing out the use of these resources. It should no longer be possible to speak of market gains while households are suffering, of growth without equity or redistribution.” 

Making households the basic unit of socioeconomic analysis, she argues, should make planners directly confront the gendered nature of economic relations, disaggregating and exposing the conflicts and competing interests within households, and between household roles and market-based economic behaviour.

In our economy, in the category of those 25 to 49 years old, men comprise about 57 per cent of the labour force, women 43 per cent. Within this age group, women’s labour force participation rate is 72 per cent compared to 95 per cent for men. Men’s unemployment is 2 per cent for that age category, but women’s is 4 per cent, and more women than men (28 per cent versus 6 per cent) are considered to be out of the labour force between the ages of 25-49. Why and with what implications for their labour?

In the petro/gas industries, men comprise 80 per cent of those employed, women 20 per cent. In the construction sector, men constitute 88 per cent of those employed, women 12 per cent. Finally, in community, social and personal services, as well as in trade, restaurants and hotels, women are 54 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively, of those employed in comparison to 42 per cent and 46 per cent of men. 

And, this labour force data for 2015 doesn’t adequately highlight women’s pervasive wage inequality for similar work. The costs of recession and growth are being survived and subsidised by households, and by labour inequities being borne by women. In addition to indicators of investment and debt, this is something economists should be discussing.


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