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16 December 2021

Support, but for whom? The hidden gendered barriers to Covid job protection schemes

Rose Cook, Aleida Borges and Damian Grimshaw

Countries around the world introduced job protection schemes in the wake of Covid, but did these actually support women?

Hidden gendered barriers News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

Read the essays

Rose Cook is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, Aleida Borges is a Research Associate at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and Damian Grimshaw is Professor at the Manchester Business School, and Director of the European Work and Employment Research Centre.

Since the Covid-19 crisis began, many countries across the globe have implemented some version of a job protection scheme alongside social distancing and business closures. These schemes, wherein the state supports a proportion of the worker’s salary while they are unable to work, are intended to help workers retain jobs. An estimated 50 million workers in Europe were participating in job protection schemes in April 2020. It is now well known that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been highly gendered across the globe due to its effects on the customer-facing industries in which many women work, often in low-paid and non-standard jobs, and due to the additional burden of unpaid care work caused by school and childcare closures. So, did job protection schemes acknowledge and respond to these gendered realities?

Low pay

Women are over-represented among the lowest-paid workers in the labour market, and many low-paid workers were placed on job protection schemes due to impacts on their industries. As job protection schemes usually don’t pay the worker’s full salary, people on low pay were particularly vulnerable to economic insecurity while on a scheme.

The most equitable approach to supporting low-paid workers is means testing, whereby those on the lowest incomes receive a higher proportion of their income than those on higher salaries. However, only a few countries – Austria, France, and Norway – did this. While a few guaranteed the minimum wage, most countries’ job protection schemes had no provisions for low-paid workers.

Previous research has shown that regulations around minimum pay standards are important for equality and stop abuses by employers. There is already evidence from the UK that low-paid workers were more likely to receive the lowest possible wage replacement rate while on the furlough scheme, and that women were more worried about finances while on furlough.

Non-standard employment

Job protection schemes in many countries were extended to accommodate the increasing number of workers in non-standard employment, including temporary and agency workers, and part-time workers, even when such workers were usually not entitled to employment and social protection. This was an unprecedented, positive step in terms of the inclusivity and gender-sensitivity of these schemes.

However, notable in Austria and Germany was the exclusion of marginal employment, or “mini-jobs”. Mini-jobs are typically low-wage jobs in the service industry with poor compliance with labour regulations. They are also a major category of employment for women, especially working mothers. Their exclusion from Covid-19 job protection is therefore likely to exacerbate gender inequalities. Some countries, such as Croatia and Hungary, also made schemes unavailable to workers in part-time employment, a move that affects women more than men. These exclusions reflect a focus on the preservation of male jobs and the idea that women’s participation in the labour force is optional.

Finally, not usually explicitly mentioned, but highly relevant from a gender point of view, is the coverage of informal work, most notably domestic workers. Domestic workers working in private households, many of whom may have lost work during the crisis, are almost exclusively women and are almost exclusively barred from accessing job protection support.

Female-dominated sectors

The economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis has been highly sectoral in nature – industries involving face-to-face customer contact, social activities, and travel have lost out the most. For example, in the UK, the accommodation and food sectors had the highest number of jobs at risk.

So, do job protection schemes consider this gendered, sectoral impact? Mostly, they don’t – schemes apply the same support across workers in different industries. Additional support for workers in particular industries has, in some cases, been negotiated through collective bargaining. In Germany, for workers in the hotel and restaurant sectors, the job protection salary replacement was raised to 90 per cent of the net monthly wage.

Unpaid care work

Faced with school and childcare closures, abundant evidence now shows that women have taken on the majority of additional unpaid labour during lockdowns, which can lead to women disengaging from the labour force.

In this context, during the strictest lockdowns there was clearly a need for gender-sensitive policy design within job protection schemes targeted at supporting women’s, and especially mothers’, continued employment. This hinges on the approach to working hours taken by the scheme, as well as whether childcare responsibilities are considered a valid reason to be unable to work.

In some countries, such as Hungary, a certain number of working hours needed to be maintained for pay to be subsidised. This inflexible approach would have been difficult to manage alongside full-time care responsibilities. In France, however, having full-time care responsibilities was considered a valid reason to access a job protection scheme full-time. This approach is probably the most gender-sensitive, since the worker accessing the scheme for childcare purposes will receive support on the same terms as a worker who has accessed the scheme for employer-determined reasons.

Overall, although there were some promising approaches to job protection support, the majority of schemes contained gendered barriers to access and sufficient support and were seemingly designed with a standard (male) worker in mind. This is likely due to women being under-represented in decision-making processes, gendered assumptions about women’s participation in paid and unpaid care work, and the limited use of gender-sensitive policymaking infrastructure, such as gender-disaggregated data.

Future data and analysis will reveal any long-term impacts of these exclusions on women’s employment. The TUC has proposed a continued, improved job protection scheme in the UK to be used at times of economic disruption, and in future schemes like this more attention should be paid to their role in mitigating gender-specific impacts of economic downturns and disease outbreaks. Such an approach should be informed by equality impact assessments of such measures, which take into account gendered segregation in the labour force, and should include provisions such as specific job protection for those with full-time care responsibilities, providing means-tested support for low-paid workers, and making support available to workers on a wide range of non-standard contracts. Such measures will ensure that women are properly supported by job protection schemes in the future and prevent inequitable exclusions.