Coronavirus threatens to wipe out gender equality gains, UN agency warns

Coronavirus and its economic consequences threaten to wipe out progress on gender equality at work as women are at greater risk of losing their job, more likely to be exposed to infection and take on more of the burden of unpaid care, the International Labour Organization has warned.

On Tuesday the UN agency increased its estimate of global working hours lost to the pandemic, largely due to the worsening health situation and economic conditions in the Americas.

It said global working hours were 14 per cent lower in the second quarter of 2020 than in the last quarter of 2019 — equivalent to a loss of 400m full-time jobs. Workers in developing countries with high levels of informal employment were being hit much harder than in previous crises, the ILO said.

It warned that women face a disproportionate impact: the decline in female employment in April and May was steeper than it was for men in countries where data were available.

“We fear that the progress, modest as it has been, in gender equality . . . runs the risk of being reversed,” said Guy Ryder, the ILO’s director-general.

This is partly because a large proportion of women work in sectors badly affected by lockdowns: hospitality, retail, entertainment and labour-intensive areas of manufacturing such as textiles. Again, this is especially pronounced in the Americas; almost 60 per cent of women in Central America work in hard-hit sectors, and more than 45 per cent in South America.

Women also make up the vast majority of the 55m domestic workers around the world who are at risk of losing their livelihood as a result of lockdowns and a lack of social security coverage.

The ILO also cited survey evidence showing that women were bearing the brunt of increased childcare responsibilities. In Europe, more than 10 per cent said they were unable to spend as much time as they should on work, all or most of the time.

Mr Ryder said it was “striking and disappointing” that care responsibilities had not been more evenly shared, even when both parents were off work.

If remote working becomes more prevalent after the immediate crisis has passed, policymakers will need to ensure that it did not exacerbate the already uneven division of unpaid care, with women becoming more likely to work from home while men returned to offices, Mr Ryder added.

The ILO set out three scenarios for a recovery in labour markets in the second half of the year. In its optimistic scenario, working hours in the fourth quarter would be only 1.2 per cent lower than a year earlier, with equivalent full-time job losses limited to around 34m.

In its bleakest scenario, involving fresh lockdowns to deal with a second wave of infection, working hours would remain around 12 per cent lower year on year, equivalent to a loss of 340m full-time jobs.