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We have started this blog to focus on the impact of COVID-19 on the more marginalised and vulnerable people and communities with whom much of our research is concerned.

Women in the informal world of work – experiences of lockdown under COVID-19 in India

Annie Delaney

September 24, 2020

The experience of lockdown under Covid-19 has become familiar to many of us, but women’s voices from the global south are rarely heard over the din of the daily case count.  The effects of lockdown on an estimated 60% of the world’s informal workforce is harsh, demeaning and in many instances, impacting on mental health, livelihood and the sustainability of life, disproportionally experienced by women.

In the developing world, the effects of coronavirus on workers engaged in the formal sector are incredibly harsh, but devastating for informal workers. Women in India represent 88 per cent of the informal labour force, yet the government policies are mainly geared toward business and assisting those with the most resources, abandoning others. In India, the Covid-19 cases have reached 5 million, many of the poorest people are experiencing Covid-19 related health expenses, which creates are a further burden on women.

Emeritus professor Barbara Harris-White has called the lockdown on informal labour in India a ‘declaration of war’ linking government ‘policy inaction’ to threatening informal workers survival. Indian Prime Minister Mody announced with 4 hour’s notice a hard lockdown, including a shut down in public transport, but offered very little in relief. His critics have accused the State of imposing extreme suffering on the informal labour in India that account for about 90% of the labour force. A consequence of the lockdown notice employers and landlords cast out many informal labourers, could not collect wages and were forced to walk for days to return to homes few had visited in years, many dying on the way. 

In the meantime, women are disproportionally shouldering the responsibility to support families and communities to survive.  In a recent survey of Indian informal women workers across five sectors, home-based, domestic, waste pickers, street vending and construction work, many are not able to pay rent or know where their next meal would come from.  In another survey, homeworkers and domestic workers surveyed across 12 states of India, found that only 5% of the 300 women surveyed still had money coming into the household.  A small number had savings that they estimated could last only a short time, and others reported surviving by trying to etch out new forms of income generation linked to the health system or in rural areas by selling animal stock. Women faced with such harsh conditions are doing whatever they can for their family to survive. Households are turning to local money lenders to survive and are subject to high interest that they may spend many years working to pay off,

Women working in the informal sector are inevitably involved in some productive or reproductive work. Still, much of their work is invisible, and they are employed mainly in low skilled, low paid work often performed in their homes or other homes, with little or no social security. The invisibilisation of women’s productive and reproductive labour, which is undervalued as non-work, results in ‘invisibilising’ both work and workers. This pattern of inequality is replicated for informal homeworkers working in global supply chains. Before Covid-19, homeworkers working in global supply chains were already facing low piece rates, insecure work and not recognised by brands. Since Covid-19, suppliers and brands have not paid workers for the work they had completed before the lockdown, and since that time all work has ceased.  The conditions of Covid-19 lockdown have perpetuated the invisibilisation of informal women’s work by the State, employers and global brands. Covid-19 has highlighted the power asymmetries and gendered and racialised patterns of inequality. However, understanding the processes that construct informal women workers invisibility can help to identify alternatives.

What strategies can be used to reverse invisibility and bring about the recognition and rights that come with visibility?

Women working in the informal sector are used to performing the precarious, low paid, unsafe and invisible work that is undervalued.  The unpaid reproductive labour they contribute is central to care and support in their communities, which creates economic and social benefits taken for granted by government, employers.  Women workers have been deeply affected by state and corporate policies enacted under Covid-19; consequently, they need support to defy invisibility.

Collective organisation is the most important way that women informal workers can begin to defy the invisibilisation of their work.  Critical for informal women workers to become more visible is to encourage more unions and NGOs to back actions for women workers in the informal sector becoming leaders.   Informal women workers face many challenges to organise together, to become more visible and for their voices to be heard. There are many examples of this happening. You can also support women workers in the informal sector to organise by supporting initiatives that focus on developing workers as leaders and prioritising collective organisation over individualised development programs. 



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Home Care Work in the COVID Era

Sara Charlesworth & Wendy Taylor

September 16, 2020

Concern about the impact of COVID-19 in aged care has focused almost exclusively on residential aged care. In Victoria, in particular, the spotlight has been on the rapid spread of this virus through facilities and the tragic number of deaths among residents. There has also been a belated recognition of the importance of frontline staff in providing daily care for residents in these facilities, despite their historically poor pay and inadequate working conditions. 

In contrast, we have heard almost nothing about home care clients or the workers who support them. Today home care workers support nearly 1 million older Australians to remain living at home through the Commonwealth Home Support Program and the Home Care Packages program.

Department of Health data suggest as of 13 September that 82 home care clients have been infected by COVID with 7 COVID-related deaths of home care clients.  As in residential age care, both infections and deaths in home care have been concentrated in Victoria.

However, there has been no media focus on home care workers and public data is not available on the numbers of workers who may have been infected by COVID.

Despite their invisibility, both now and before COVID, home care workers remain essential workers. Yet their minimum award pay and working conditions are some of the poorest in the country. We highlight six conditions of home care work that are in urgent need of reform

  • Home care workers pay rates are very low  

The Award minimum hourly rate of pay for entry-level home care workers is just $21.35. Of just as much concern though are effective limits to any further wage increases. The minimum rate for experienced home care workers, who provide more complex personal care, is only a couple of dollars more, at $23.81.

  • Home care workers don’t have to be paid for the time they travel between clients

Travelling between clients is an integral part of the job of home care. But while in New Zealand and the United Kingdom home care workers must legally be paid for this time, in Australia there is no Award provision for paid travel time. It is hard to think of any other job where work-related travel time is unpaid. A recent UK Employment Tribunal decision underscored the right of home care workers to be paid for the time spent travelling between clients and extended this right to paid time to cover up to 60 minutes ‘waiting time’ between client visits.

  • Rostered ‘shifts’ can be as short as one hour

Casual home care workers can be employed for shifts as short as one hour and could have one, two or more of those shifts in a day. This compares to a four-hour minimum shift for casual manufacturing workers and a three-hour minimum shift for casual health workers.  

For permanent part-time home care workers, it’s even worse, they have no entitlement at all to a minimum shift time. This compares to a four-hour minimum shifts for part-time manufacturing workers and four hours minimum for part-time patient transport workers.

  • Workers wear the risks and costs of staff shortages and client cancellations

Permanent part-time home care workers are expected to nominate their ‘availability’ outside their ‘guaranteed’ minimum hours. This basically means they are effectively ‘on call’ for this period, yet are not paid any allowance for being available. Patient transport workers and other health workers are paid an allowance where they are on call and available to work if needs be

If a client cancels their scheduled visit before 5 pm the previous day, permanent part-time home care workers are not paid for this visit and have to make up the time lost.

  • Home care work is increasingly complex and demanding

Population ageing and a long-term policy shift towards home care means older people living at home are increasingly frail and have complex health issues.

Caring for older people with dementia, depression, diabetes, heart conditions, cancers or arthritis can be extremely challenging.  Many people approved for home care packages are so frail or disabled they meet the requirements for permanent residential care.

Yet the home care skill descriptors in the Award do not recognise or reward the greater level of specialist skills, judgement and decision-making or the interpersonal skills increasingly required by home care workers to provide good quality care to frail older people. 

  • Home care workers suffer high rates of injury

Health and safety regulators have identified home care work as a high-risk occupation. Common conditions reported include musculoskeletal injuries, injuries from falls and trips, work-related stress, injuries from vehicle accidents, verbal abuse and assault. Common risk factors are poor systems of work, such as not enough time allocated to complete care tasks. Despite this, home care workers are often reluctant to report health and safety risks such as having to transfer very heavy clients alone or work-related violence.

 

These working conditions have existed in Australian home care long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Poor working conditions compromise sustainable good-quality care in government-subsidised home care services. The need for reform of home care workers’ basic working conditions is urgent.



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Regional Work Futures in the COVID-19 Era

Peter Fairbrother & Todd Denham

August 26, 2020

Much commentary about work futures is on the job displacement heralded by the digitalisation of work. There are forecasts of possible widespread job losses and high levels of unemployment (see Warhurst & Hunt 2019). Much research also points to deskilling for many and reskilling a few, creating polarised workforces. The outcome could be a marked division in jobs done by a privileged workforce and a growing precariat. In the pandemic such trends are likely to be exacerbated.

Australian regional labour markets are in a state of transition, with seemingly bleak work futures. The prevailing proposition is that with technological innovation there is likely to be a spatial sorting of highly productive industries, into a few largely metropolitan centres. This is because of “increasing-returns effects residing in the external economies of scale and scope that flow from selected aspects of their joint operation in particular localities” (Scott 2008, p. 70).

Added weight to these prognostications is provided by the comprehensive restructuring of regional economies that is underway, accompanied by job loss and closure (e.g. Fairbrother and Denham 2020; Taylor et al. 2019). Although, there is comprehensive growth in the place-based service industries, health, social care, education and to a lesser extent retail. But, this work is often part-time, low paid work involving women and the young (see blogs). And, there is the diminution of services such as banking, technical support and professional services in the regions. There is also on increase in seasonal work in agriculture involving migrant and transient, and vulnerable labour.

So, is the future of work, and particularly good jobs and employment to be found only in the metropolies? Is it likely to be accompanied by a comprehensive contraction of employment in the regions – made worse by the fall-out of the pandemic? Much recent theory supports a dystopian regional prospect, although uneven in impact. Nonetheless, there is an alternative; after all our futures are a feature of how we approach our futures. Again and again, theorists have drawn attention to the limits of technological determinism, and the implied futures about work.

Work futures can be place-based. The major disruption of COVID-19 creates the opportunity to reimagine the future of work in regions. The impact on households is stark, the escalation of home working, the differential spatial impact of the virus, and the shift in modes of retail purchase, together with the uncertainty in supply chain operations. How we understand work must change. Already, there appears to be reconstitution of the provision of some services and activities underway, exemplified by forms of blended learning where place is no longer decisive.

Thus, a reimagined regional future for work requires:

  1. To date, the three layers of government have not managed to develop cohesive and integrated approaches to regional futures; the relatively exclusionary and self-interested approaches to regional socio-economic futures threatens inclusive work futures. Hence, an immediate focus on inclusive forms of regional governance are a necessary pre-condition for a renewed work future in the regions.
  2. Often regional policies are formulated in concert with local political elites, particularly business interests dominating the process with their ‘shovel-ready’ projects. The alternative approach is one where a wide range of regional actors are able to exercise their preferences for work in situ and decent work for a just transition. The models of the future may be the technology parks and industry precincts located in regions.  Education/training systems could be shaped to develop local workforces and promote the interchange between the region and the metropolis. Political will is required.
  3. Regions are organised around diverse resources, industries, and services, with varied As with the utilisation of technologies, decisions for use are made by fiat, deliberation, by default; instead we could deploy these technologies in humane or inhumane ways. The decision to locate and enable all forms of work in regional spaces is a matter of decision, rather than technological inevitability.

Regional futures can be carved out in the occasion of crisis. The question is how can we work and how do we want to work? The pandemic – the experience of remote working, less place-defined – can be an impetus for such innovation. The disruption to supply chains and related logistics and marketing underwrites the challenge. The caution is that such steps must be marked by the celebration of decent work in congenial circumstances. Thus, the regions have a future.

***

Scott, AJ 2008, Social Economy of the Metropolis: Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism and the Global Resurgence of Cities, Oxford University Press, Oxford.



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