For years, Workers’ Liberty has been talking about ‘social reproduction’, a term that covers all sorts of domestic labour, such as caring for people, keeping workers fed and fit for work and bringing children into the world. This work carries little status because it has traditionally been performed by women for free in the home. In the world of paid employment, so-called ‘women’s work’, such as caring and cleaning, has also been notoriously undervalued and underpaid.
Despite its low status, this work is essential for society and for the capitalist economy. Before the pandemic, a lot of it was taking place in our houses for free, supplemented by informal care networks (mostly women). From the capitalists’ perspective, our free labour, plus a small amount of government support – schools, nurseries, etc. – meant that enough workers could keep turning up for work each day, the economy could keep ticking over and there was no real need to ask how this miracle was being achieved.
It was an inadequate arrangement. Ask any woman who has been excluded from work or faced discrimination because of the lack of social support for caring roles. Ask any parent stressed about trying to work and care, trying to pay for private childcare in a low waged economy or else lose their job. We already knew that the whole arrangement hung by a thread. Then Covid-19 came along and broke it.
Schools and childcare settings closed to the majority of children between March and September 2020 and again in January 2021. For most of the last year, a lot of parents have attempted to provide childcare and education at home – often at a cost of being able to work. Since Covid came along, it’s certainly felt like childcare and tasks relating to ‘social reproduction’ have been a lot more visible. But, overall, the press, the unions and the Labour Party have not been nearly angry enough about what we’ve seen. The pandemic has shone a light on age-old problems: systematic devaluation of social reproduction and deep-rooted sexism in our society. We’ve got to use this opportunity to demand something radically better, especially because all evidence so far is that Covid has further entrenched women’s inequality.
Women’s Fightback has spoken to several women about their experiences during the pandemic. We’ve also read some of the studies that have started to come out. We are beginning a conversation about what Covid-19 has revealed about women’s roles and inequality and are starting to sketch out a vision for a way forward. Here is what they said:
“The experience of Covid has highlighted how oppressive and exclusionary the idea of ‘the household’ is. Of course, from a public health point of view, there wasn’t really any other way around this than to set guidelines based on who you live with. But it’s a nightmare for women across the world because all the ways we have found to manage and mitigate the double or triple burden of paid employment and unpaid labour in the home and more general social reproduction of caring for our families and neighbours has been completely turned upside down. We always say it takes a village to raise a child. There shouldn’t be so much expectation that all the caring can be done within one unit. The expectation that women we can care without wider social support is oppressive.”
“I work specifically with teenage parents with young children in an area known for deprivation. The young mums were being instructed to isolate as a ‘household’ but there was no way they were going to do that - they may be living with partners but they are also young men and caring for their kids really does take ‘a village’. Their village tends to be their mum, their gran, their aunt, their sister - sometimes it is their dad or grandad too (though less so). It is these same communities, working class communities, who are often being held up as rule breakers. But they are doing what is necessary. The ‘household’ is really quite a middle class idea”.
“So many community activities, either run through the public or voluntary sector, that support mums and babies were instantly shut down (breastfeeding groups, mum and baby / toddler sessions - all that). This has been very hard on new mums. These services are a lifeline. We shouldn’t be in a situation where our ability to manage our caring responsibilities hangs by a thread. All of this has highlighted how generally unsupportive society is for something that is so essential – caring and childcare.”
“You’ll never get any credit from society at large for playing any kind of a role in childcare. If looking after kids is what you do with your life then it’s not seen as work. Or if you take time off from your job to look after kids, it’s frowned upon, you’re seen as less committed to your job and they look for ways to get rid of you. But suddenly when schools closed, the government started panicking that there wasn’t enough childcare, and piling pressure onto schools to reopen. Turns out that we’d been doing something worthwhile all along!”
“I work in a highly feminised workforce but even then, as soon as lockdown began, we were expected to continue or jobs with kids at home, with partners in the home working, and no access to all the childcare support we had in place to support us previously (not to mention those who cared for older relatives). When the support was taken away from us nobody really made allowances for that, we had to just get on with it. This pandemic has removed everything we knew we needed in our lives but is very rarely accounted for because we are not supposed to see it as essential work. If we saw it as essential, we would have to value it.”
“For months I was working until 10pm every night just so I could keep on top of my job while giving some time to my daughter during the day. As a single mum, there was nobody else around for her. But I felt like I couldn’t be asking for ‘favours’ from work so I just had to carry on. I’m exhausted.”
“I’ve dropped down my hours at work from four to 2.5 days for childcare, but they haven’t given me any less work to do. On the one hand it’s great that they’ve been flexible, but I am very stressed about how behind I am getting.”
“When schools closed, my manager said, “Just do what you can”. In many ways it’s helpful, but the end result is that I feel like a crap mum and a crap employee, failing on every front. “My manager said, ‘just do as much work as you can’. I wish we could be given paid time off so we don’t have this horrible feeling of trying to do everything and letting everyone down.”