A Reading in the Socioeconomic Repercussions
of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Working Women in Egypt
In the midst of the social and economic repercussions of the crisis of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and health risks facing the whole world, we try to read the impact of legislations, policies and ministerial decisions on the conditions of women after three months of the outbreak of the pandemic. We pay special attention to categories of women who are usually marginalized, and lack health and social insurance because most of them work in the informal sector. The Permanent Conference for Working Women of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) produces this paper as part of its work to observe and document the conditions of working women in different labour sectors.
In this context, the Permanent Conference for Working Women observes the social and economic repercussions of the novel coronavirus, and its current and future impact on working women, which is expected to lead most of them to work in extremely harsh conditions. Economic recession affected the incomes of most households, and led to a rise in the percentage of female-headed households. Many women are expected to lose their jobs under precautionary measures taken by the state to curb the spread of the virus.
In 2020, we were supposed to be celebrating the passing of 25 years on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It should have been a decisive year in the achievement of social and economic equality and protection for women. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse the limited gains achieved in the preceding decades. This pandemic exposed the shortcomings of social and economic systems increasing the burden of the pandemic on women in all fields including deterioration of health, economic conditions and social protection. The results are double adverse impact on women as majority of them work in unsafe jobs and live closer to the poverty line.
With increasing economic and social pressures associated with the restriction of movement and imposition of isolation measures, more women are forced to work in the informal labour market which violates the rights of women and men, as it lacks health and social insurance protection. However, women are more negatively affected and are the weakest link in society. The reason is that social security and health insurance systems cover only working people who are below the age of retirement. They ignore those who don’t have paid jobs and those who are too old to work. Women constitute the majority of these groups. Only those who work in the formal economy benefit from these protections, while people working in the informal economic sector or doing unpaid work within the family are not covered. Moreover, female-dominated service sectors, like food, entertainment and tourism, are adversely affected by the measures taken to curb the coronavirus crisis. So, women working in these sectors are more vulnerable. 55% of women work in the service sector compared to 44% of men.
Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic created a severe crisis that has social and economic consequences that necessitate quick responses compatible with its size and consequences. However, these responses will be greatly weakened if their impact on women, especially working women, is not taken into consideration. The Lancet is one of the oldest and best known medical journals in the world. In its issue of March 14, 2020, it published that “[p]olicies and public health efforts have not addressed the gendered impacts of disease outbreaks. The response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) appears no different.” According to this journal, until now there is no “gender analysis of the outbreak by global health institutions or governments in affected countries or in preparedness phases.”
It is certain that this pandemic creates many challenges for women, and increases the risks they already face every day. There is considerable evidence that the repercussions of the outbreak of the virus, in 175 states until now, are worse for women than men. Most obviously, women are on the front line in the battle against the virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women form 70% of healthcare workers in 104 states, and most of them are nurses. This poses greater risk of contracting the virus because nurses spend more time with patients. We already see in Egypt that most infections among women are among female healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, health technicians, and workers in the administration of hospitals). It is also worth mentioning that WHO data shows that the gender pay gap in this sector is 11%. On the other hand, the unpaid work of women is not recognized by society in spite of its utmost importance. Nowadays, women have more unpaid work to do because of the precautionary and preventive measures taken by governments. Women bear 75% of domestic work and unpaid care work around the world, according to UN WOMEN.
ILO figures also confirm this burden borne by women. They show that 76.2% of total unpaid care work is done by women, i.e. three folds of time spent by men for the same kind of work. Closed Schools mean that women are under greater physical and psychological pressure because they bear the main responsibility of children and their affairs.
Although the objective of the stay-at-home orders is to reduce the probability of infection and the spread of the virus, women cannot totally benefit from these orders. In many communities, it is still expected from women to shop for family needs. According to a study issued in 2019, the percentage of women bearing this responsibility amounts to 80% in some countries. Thus, they are more likely to be close to carriers of the virus. Nevertheless, this was not taken into consideration by governments that insist on separating between gender and health issues, ignoring gender mainstreaming in all aspects.
This was confirmed by the declaration of the WHO that women will be hit harder by the novel coronavirus as the socioeconomic consequences thereof will be greater for women compared to men. The Arab Women Organization also expected that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to increasing the percentage of female-headed households. It will also ruin the lives of women daily labourers working in fragile jobs because of the precautionary measures taken against the pandemic. Although their jobs are simple (domestic workers, agricultural workers, and street vendors), they support whole families. The distribution of working women in Egypt is highly relevant. 18.1% of women provide for their families. 40.9% of non-agricultural female workers work in informal jobs. 33.9% of women work in fragile jobs. 6.7% work in the industry sector, 36.4% work in agriculture, and 56.8% of women work in the service sector.
Moreover, women form 42.1% of doctors and 91.9% of nurses working for the Ministry of Health, and 73.1% of nurses working in private hospitals and other private healthcare facilities (according to the figures of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), and the report of the National Council for Women (NCW)). The novel coronavirus is expected to affect all these sectors including the healthcare facilities of the private sector. This poses greater risk to them as most of them are mothers who have to care for the members of their families and bear the work pressure. However, policies of the state are still not responsive enough to the requirements of protection of these workers either in the health sector or other sectors, especially the informal sector. For example, the Central Bank of Egypt took some decisions on the 22nd of March 2020 to curb the consequences of the coronavirus. Among them was a decision to postpone credit installments for a period of six months for individuals and companies without imposing any delay charges or commissions on those who want to benefit from the postponement. Moreover, Minister of Trade and Industry, Nevine Gamea, stated on March 17, 2020 that the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises Development Agency (MSMEDA) will support small enterprises against the negative economic effects of the coronavirus crisis. However, following the issuance of the decisions of the Central Bank on the 22nd of March, companies funding micro enterprises (90% of these enterprises are owned by women) refused to treat owners of these enterprises on equal foot with other owners when it comes to benefiting from the decided postponement. A story published by AlmalNews showed that SMSs were sent to owners of micro enterprises asking them to pay the installments of monthly loans for the lending companies and institutions. Some of the owners of these enterprises confirmed that funding companies refuse to apply the decisions of the Central Bank claiming that companies and institutions lending their enterprises are not subject to the decisions of the Central Bank. It should have been a priority for the state amid this crisis to protect the incomes and businesses of weaker categories, or at least to equate them with companies and individuals benefiting from credit facilities declared by the Central Bank. The same credit and payment facilities included in the recent bundle of decisions of the Central Bank or any other decisions to be issued in the future should be applied by the Financial Regulatory Authority on borrowers of micro loans to help them overcome the current challenge. A clear decision has to be made to automatically postpone payment claims, in addition to any other benefits available to other borrowers. The Financial Regulatory Authority should make sure that all companies and institutions operating in the field of micro-lending apply this decision. The Egyptian government confirms that majority of beneficiaries from the funding of micro enterprises are women. They were mainly targeted as women according to Egypt’s National Strategy for the Empowerment of Women. The number of families headed by a woman alone amounts to 3.3 million families. So, the protection of these women and their families amid the coronavirus crisis should be prioritized because they are the poorest and most vulnerable. Moreover, the current crisis raises the issue of domestic workers and those of similar status. It is noticeable and already well known that many households laid them off because of the coronavirus crisis, which made this category of workers endure vey harsh living conditions. We believe that it is the duty of households employing those workers to grant them paid leaves until the crisis is over. All parties should bear their share of responsibility. However, it is necessary to amend the draft labour law being discussed in order not to include this category of workers from its coverage. Usual provisions on labour inspection and judicial authorization of access may not be applied on this category of workers without depriving them of other labour rights related to wages, working hours and holidays, as well as insurance coverage.
In this framework, what we miss now amid this pandemic is competent response from state institutions with short-term policies and other long term policies to anticipate challenges and catastrophes.
Thus, the Permanent Conference for Working Women proposes some recommendations and suggestions relating to working women during and after the coronavirus crisis, and calls for an effective social dialogue in which trade unions, state institutions, employers, political parties, and civil society organizations take part as follows:
Recommendations and Suggestions:
The above are some proposals. Of course, there are other ideas and solutions that may be more responsive and useful. However, we cannot be sure of the feasibility of any of them unless they are adopted and implemented by institutions that deem them necessary.
The Permanent Conference for Working Women
12 May 2020