Maverick Citizen


Oxfam: How women bear the burden of economic inequality

A rural woman digs for clay, to produce bricks near Coffee Bay, in South Africa's Eastern Cape, 06 May 2014. EPA/Kevin Sutherland

Oxfam’s latest annual inequality report looks at how the exclusion of millions of women from equal and paid employment, particularly for care work, is central to the crisis of global income inequality. But to add insult to injury, it is usually women who bear the burden of failing public health, education and social services, as well as rising unemployment.

Oxfam this week launched its annual global inequality report titled Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis, in the form of a panel discussion on the eve of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. On Monday’s panel in Johannesburg were partner organisations representing women workers; The Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU), Johannesburg Informal Traders Association and the United Domestic Workers of South Africa (Udwosa).

The report presents staggering figures showing how the inequality gap is increasing. A small group of 2,153 global billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people — that’s 60% of the world’s population. Oxfam also revealed that the number of billionaires has doubled in the past decade.

The research shows that governments are massively under-taxing businesses and their wealthiest individuals. Should this change, it could help alleviate the burden of care work responsibility from women. Research in the report also shows that the world’s 22 wealthiest men are wealthier than all the women in Africa.

It’s not normal, it’s not natural, it’s an injustice” declared Sipho Mthathi, Executive Director of Oxfam South Africa, as she discussed the shocking numbers.

The report details how inequality is inherently sexist with women being the worst impacted as the design of economies usually excludes women from participating equally. For example, Oxfam calculates that women and girls put in about 12.5 billion hours of work a year valued at U$10.8-trillion and yet still remained at the bottom of the food chain. Most of this work goes unrecognised and therefore unpaid or underpaid. Unpaid labour means the financial value of women’s work is rendered largely invisible.

Mthathi went on to discuss how societal failures such as the economic crisis, Eskom and the ailing health sector usually become “women’s problems”. This meant women carry the burden of people who are rendered unemployed as a result of the economic crisis, who look to these women to provide for them often through the care work sector as they do not have professional qualifications or experience. This is also true of those unable to get help from the health sector who turn to family members to take care of their health needs.

Care work is defined as tending to others, including children and the elderly, cooking, cleaning and fetching water and firewood which are critical tasks in order for communities and economies to function accordingly.

Fikile Dikolomela Lengene from YNITU spoke of how the government’s endorsement of labour brokers meant women were exposed to exploitative practices. She said perhaps the reason care work was underpaid was because it wasnot profit-driven, but about saving people’s lives”. Lengene said there is a stigma around women standing up for their rights, particularly in the face of patriarchy that often impedes the fight for equal remuneration.

Inequality Programme, Lead Basani Baloyi, contextualised the report’s findings by categorising the various types of care work women do as Paid, Unpaid and Underpaid. Women make up the majority component (three quarters) of care work and as a result, this is why they find it difficult to break free from the cycle of poverty that excludes them from the formal economy and makes it difficult for them to be independent. Another reason is that this type of work is not actually considered formal work and is often referred to as “assisting and helping out” as opposed to employment.

Baloyi explained how the global economic model was set up to be sexist. The current economic model feminises the economic crisis as women are often the ones left to mop up the consequences of economic failure, with the current austerity measures only serving to deepen this. Women often have to leave the workforce in order to do care workload. For example, 42% of women are not able to have jobs outside the home as a result of doing care work at home, compared to a paltry 6% of men.

Pinky Mashiane of Udwosa has been a domestic worker since 1989. She soon realised that domestic workers were not protected by the law, leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous employment practices. She reminded us of the fate of Christina Moyo in the early ’90s, who was raped and killed after a break-in at her employer’s house, and the employers did not compensate the family except for four cabbages.

Since then Mashiane has been working to ensure that domestic workers receive fair compensation for injuries or death while on duty. To this end, on 10 March 2020 the union will go to the Constitutional Court to demand retrospective compensation up to 1994 now that domestic workers have been recognised in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, having previously been excluded from the formal labour system.

The report proposes a number of solutions, such as the need for governments to invest in affordable and quality public services through progressive taxation and investment in infrastructure.

Governments should prioritise the need to provide care and be cared for, putting the well-being of citizens above profit. This means care work needs to be afforded equal value to formal forms of employment. Legislation needs to be clear about the protection of paid and unpaid care work and work towards eliminating the gender wage gap so that women are compensated equally and enjoy the same benefits.

The report holds that governments need to act now to rectify the inequality crisis as they are the ones who created it.

Governments have fixated on growth and more often than not, been unresponsive to challenges faced by the most marginalised citizens. For decades they have pursued policies that enabled those at the top to build their power, wealth and influence exponentially, leaving behind those at the bottom of the economy. This has led to a crisis point on economic inequality and care.” MC

The full report is available on the Oxfam website.

On 20 February 2020 Oxfam will launch the South African version of the global report.


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