Maverick Citizen


Impossible choices for low-income essential workers with young children

(Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lucky Maibi)

With the reopening of schools last week, and as debates about the safety and concerns of teachers and pupils continue, we reflect on how caregiving during the pandemic has deepened inequalities for low-income employed mothers and essential workers who care for children.

Research findings emerging from 2020 indicate that “almost one million children (974,000) below the age of six have no other adult caregiver in the household except a working parent”. 

In reality, and looking back over the past eight months, the number of children affected by crèche and school closures – in cases where the caregiver was employed – is likely to be much greater when we also consider young children in grades R, 1, 2 and so on. 

The debate around the closure of school and pre-primary facilities centred on the impact on children. The authors of the study proposed that “hundreds of thousands of these children would be left home alone in households without an adult caretaker if their employed caregiver was forced to return to work to earn an income and sustain her family”. 

Understandably, most attention focused on the educational, health and safety needs of children when schools were closed. Less attention has focused on how mothers, as essential workers in low-income employment, managed caregiving over the past 10 months, especially when most crèches and schools were unable to stay open for longer periods. 

Drawing from ongoing research into the experience of low-income mothers’ experience of care for young children during the pandemic, this article describes how women in “essential” low-income employment have tried to balance the needs of their jobs and the changing needs of children and family members. 

Bongi, a 35-year-old mother of a six-year-old girl, worked at a butchery during the lockdowns and school closures as butcheries were categorised as an essential business. As a single mother, she was in a predicament about where to leave her child – in Grade R in 2020 – while she was at work. 

“Usually, she goes to school and after that she goes to aftercare. I come back from work at 5pm, collect her and we come home. That is the usual routine. But during this time, I have had to stress and worry about where I send her during the day. The last thing I wanted to do was send her home to be with my parents (her grandparents), because they are old and do not have energy to look after a six-year-old and it is dangerous.”

Exposed to the threat of infection, at risk of increased stress and anxiety and facing the added pressure of ensuring the safety of older family members, Bongi, as an essential worker, has had to make extremely difficult decisions. 

She explained how it is difficult enough to combine the care of her daughter in normal times, but with ongoing school closures, Bongi, like many parents, faced considerable stress from an ever-changing childcare situation:

“But that is what I had to do… I had to send her to my parents – she is in the village, two hours away from where I stay, with my parents. She has been gone since April. I cannot even go home on my days off. Because of the work I do, I have gone to work every single day since the lockdown began… The last thing I want to do is go home to see her, as my parents are both over 60 years of age. 

“I would not live with myself if I went home and then maybe I have the virus and I give it to them. I am heartbroken. I miss my family, I miss my child. But I cannot have her with me… schools keep opening and closing. She needs a constant structure for care because I work.”

For Bongi to continue working, she had no alternative but to send her child to her parents. While her employment was deemed “essential”,  the work involved in caring for her child was not. So why was there no alternative? 

In some countries, the state recognised the childcare needs of essential workers and attempted to find a solution by keeping open some childcare centres and schools. 

In other countries, activists and childcare organisations mobilised to support the childcare needs of low-income essential workers. In other places, the state issued childcare payments to support the cost of alternative care solutions. 

Almost a year into the pandemic, the childcare crisis is leaving mothers – who are essential workers in low-income employment – stressed, exhausted and less well off than they were before. The mothers are overwhelmingly black and live in areas the pandemic has hit the hardest. 

Last week we saw the results from Wave 3 of the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), which reminded us that roughly 3.4 million women (versus 1.7 million men) said that looking after children in June, when most schools and ECD centres were closed, “prevented them from going to work or made work very difficult”

The phrase “making work very difficult” is a gross understatement of the gendered and racialised struggles that many low-paid essential workers have endured over the past year. 

The latest findings from the NIDS-CRAM survey also showed us that ECD attendance has not recovered to pre-lockdown levels and remains lower compared with previous years. 

Another mother, 32-year-old Angel, is a cashier at a supermarket in Mandeni. She has three children aged one, three and seven and, like Bongi, has also been extremely worried about the care for her children over the last few months. 

She heard that a woman was running a childcare service from her garage for working mothers in the area.

“Ever since my cousin, who used to help with the children, moved back to the rural areas, I am alone when it comes to looking after the children. You know, I hope this does not change the way you look at me, but I send my three children to one of our neighbours who is running a care service from her garage. 

“She is helping all the mothers in this area, because some of us really have nowhere to leave our children. I will not lie – I am scared that my children may get it (Covid-19) from being with other children and being at the garage. But they could also get it from me… I am a cashier. I come across so many people… I handle money. Sure, I take the measures, but you can never know for sure. 

“I hope you can understand that I am only doing this because I need someone to care for them. I can no longer send them to school, crèche or aftercare. I had to do something because I must work. I am very desperate…  even the neighbour running the service is more expensive. She is taking advantage because we mothers are desperate. 

“I have my concerns about exposing my children [to the virus], but I use her services anyway because I must go to work. You know, sometimes as a mother you must make tough decisions.” 

For many parents working in low-paid essential jobs, the issue of childcare is just one obstacle to navigate. Every choice mothers make carries health and financial risks.  

Angel expressed concern about the cost of care during the pandemic, but also how she is fraught with anxiety about her children or herself becoming ill. 

The lack of attention given to alternative childcare solutions during the pandemic, especially for low-paid essential workers, speaks to the state’s ongoing failure to recognise care work as essential work. 

Single parenting during the pandemic increased the physical, mental and emotional effort which has been put into the day-to-day work of parenting. It also impacted the cost of care. 

The temporary increase in the child support grant barely covered the cost of food, as one mother explained: “I received the child support grant for my two children, so we have used the money for food. Although we cannot buy as much as we need, it goes a long way. But as long as you have maize, you can live.” 

The latest findings from the NIDS-CRAM survey indicate that hunger and food insecurity have worsened, possibly because of the phasing out of the top-ups to the social grants since November 2020. 

When one considers that the temporary increase in the CSG never covered the extra childcare costs needed by low-income essential workers when schools and crèches were closed, it is no surprise that hunger has worsened again. 

The ongoing failure to recognise the cost of care and support women who carry this responsibility makes this work invisible. We support the calls seeking more support for caregivers through an increase in the child support grant to R585 per month, and we support the calls to remove the conditions of eligibility for the social relief distress grant which deny caregivers access to this grant.  

In his recent State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa applauded the courage of “the essential worker, the carer and all those on the frontline who have kept our country safe, our people fed and our economy going”. What the president fails to see is that the essential worker is also a caregiver, and when she is providing essential work, she is also paying for someone else to provide essential work to care for her children. 

This is a cost that is highly gendered and felt most by women in low-income employment. The economic empowerment of women referred to by the president in his Sona starts with recognising the true cost of such everyday “essential care work”. DM/MC

Nonzuzo Mbokazi is a recent doctoral graduate and Elena Moore is an associate professor at the department of sociology, both at the University of Cape Town.


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