The Future of Work is here: A regional feminist perspective on the effects of COVID-19

In recent years, world leaders, economists, business owners, and tech giants have been discussing how the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution1 will change the way we live and work.

Despite what some see as the promise of a greater economic future, feminists predict a widening gender gap2 and deeper economic inequalities which, if left unaddressed, will add crippling challenges for women and the most economically vulnerable in the future world of work. Feminists have also raised concerns regarding the narrow focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution as the main driver in shaping the so-called “<link topics political-feminism feminist-visions-of-the-future-of-work _blank link in magnific>Future of Work.” They have urged stakeholders and policymakers to view climate change as well as demographic change as additional driving forces behind the changes to come, as both will undoubtedly place unprecedented economic pressures on women and girls worldwide.

Today, these discussions, concerns, and predictions of the future, for which we have not yet adequately prepared, are quickly turning into reality due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article is influenced by a feminist analysis framework and will discuss—through a gendered lens and with a focus on the MENA region—the links between the changes happening around us today due to the pandemic and the changes that are expected to shape the Future of Work.

The Outbreak of Digitalization3

Across the world, over three billion people are currently experiencing some form of lockdown, with hundreds of millions of whom instructed to work from home in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses, schools, universities, retailers, and even gyms have accelerated their transition towards digitalizing their processes to continue operating in times of quarantine. For some of us, the transition has been relatively smooth. But for the majority, this has not been the case.

In line with the general concerns related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitalization, feminists in the MENA region have highlighted their concerns regarding issues that automatically exclude women from participating in a digitalized labor market. These concerns include the lack of adequate broadband infrastructure across various countries in the region, specifically in rural areas, where women are less likely than men to migrate to cities in search of employment; the digital gender divide (in Iraq, for instance, only 51% of women have access to the Internet, compared to 98% of men); and the spread of digital illiteracy (as well as illiteracy itself), especially among older women. Consequently, as the Internet and digital technologies are quickly becoming prerequisites not only for the attainment of decent employment but also for cultural and political engagement, these hurdles must be eliminated.

Moreover, according to WIEGO, 62% of women working in the MENA region are informal workers; a number predicted to rise with the expected spread of digitalized “gig” work across the world. Currently, some governments in the region are taking measures to protect formal workers in the public and private sectors, providing them with social security during the pandemic. In most of the region, however, informal workers fear they will soon be unable to sustain themselves and their families economically, with many risking their health, and the health of others, to earn some income despite being advised to self-quarantine. With no health insurance or social safety nets to support them in the same way their formally-employed counterparts are being supported (however limited that support is), these workers are at higher risk than usual of sinking further into underemployment, working poverty, or unemployment. Therefore, adequate social security schemes that protect seasonal and daily laborers are now more essential than ever to help lift the burden of the current health and economic crisis and safeguard future informal workers.

Overburdening the Overburdened

As digitalization provides, and will continue to provide, employees with more flexible and remote working hours, feminists in the region have been denouncing the rhetoric which encourages women to participate in the labor market by working from home (referred to in the literature as home-based work, which seems to pertain only to women) in order to attain a life-work balance. Their concerns stem from the fact that across the MENA region, millions of women are already very much confined to the private sphere and are expected to be solely responsible for care work4 within the household, regardless of whether or not they have other paid work. During this pandemic, the burden of domestic care work is increasing. With health authorities calling for more hygienic practices such as intensified cleaning and laundry washing, cooking every meal, caring for the sick, and homeschooling children, traditional gender roles are again reinforced, placing an exceptional burden on the shoulders of already overburdened women.

Governments have a responsibility to counter such traditional perceptions of gender roles by using gender transformative policies. Yet the COVID-19 policy responses across the region have shown that governments are yet to fully adopt this responsibility. In Jordan, for example, when the government announced the suspension of schools in mid-March 2020, some public sector institutions, such as the Ministry of Finance, responded by allowing working mothers—but not fathers—to take additional paid leave to care for their children. Such decisions not only fail to counter the so-called “motherhood penalty,” which systematically disadvantages working mothers in comparison to working fathers or childless women within the context of work and reaffirms women’s secondary status in the labor market, they also abide by the patriarchal heteronormative gender division of labor (i.e., male breadwinner and female caretaker model) which has disadvantaged women for centuries.

Moreover, Arab states play a key role in the global care chain, hosting the largest number of migrant domestic workers in the world—3.16 million in 2015, according to the ILO—the majority of whom are women. Despite this, no country in the region has ratified the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, which aims to set labor standards ensuring decent work for domestic workers. Currently, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, migrant workers are identified by the ILO as particularly vulnerable. Domestic workers in the region are even more so, due to the terms of their employment under the infamous “Kafala” system5. With their mobility much more restricted than usual, they are confined with unlimited working hours under exploitative conditions. With insecure contracts that are excluded from national labor laws, the dependents of these workers back home are also at risk of losing their financial security. Furthermore, for domestic workers who have escaped the grip of an abusive employer without their documentation papers, COVID-19 tests have been unattainable. In Lebanon, for instance, the authorities have either refused to administer COVID-19 tests to undocumented people or have requested around $500 for the test, a price that many simply cannot pay. Therefore, when formulating policy responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, the specific conditions and realities of these workers must be taken into consideration and appropriately addressed.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the world was headed towards a care crisis due to aging populations, changing family dynamics, cuts in government spending on care services and social protection measures as well as climate change (e.g., water scarcity caused by climate change would result in extra care work for women and girls, such as collecting water and tending to land). With the current pandemic, this crisis has arrived in a different form, and is much more severe than previously expected. As healthcare systems worldwide become strained, paid health-care workers—70% of whom are women—are left exhausted and overwhelmed due to lack of sufficient staff, long working hours, and high health risks. In a highly affected country like Spain, for example, 14% of infected people are health-care professionals. If more countries in the MENA region become substantially affected by the virus, this percentage could be even higher, as many countries have weaker healthcare systems than that of Spain, with limited personal protection equipment available due to disruptions in global supply chains and low capacity for large-scale manufacturing. Additionally, the health risks for health-care workers are not only physical, as studies on past outbreaks indicate that front-line health-care workers are also prone to developing mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. In a country such as Egypt, where only 1 in 10 nurses are men, a large number of women in the healthcare sector may face dangerous working conditions if adequate protective equipment is not available.

Feminists have been calling for larger investments in care systems for years. It is now more urgent than ever to not only invest in national care systems, but to also ensure that paid care workers’ rights are strengthened and upheld. It is crucial to finally recognize the importance of care work in sustaining functioning societies and economies; redistribute it fairly between the community, the state, and the private sector (with states taking the lead in redistribution efforts); and, finally, when it is paid, to give it the value that it deserves.

The “Green” Lining. Or is it?

From an exclusively environmental perspective, ignoring all other considerations, the drastic measures that have been taken to slow down the pandemic have had unintended positive effects. With limited flights operating, no school or work commuting, factories shutting down temporarily, and a huge drop in demand for oil, pollution levels across the world have plummeted drastically, at least for now. Moreover, with supply chains disrupted by the pandemic, some countries in the region (e.g., Egypt and Jordan) have begun exploring ways to increase local food production. This disruption in the process of importing and exporting food will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. This could pave the way to greater national food sovereignty and ultimately to increased environmental justice. Unlike the environmental crisis, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to be temporary6. Although our world economy will reboot its capitalist and neoliberal system as soon as it has the chance, we now see hints of alternative green practices (e.g., increasing local production) that might accelerate the transition to a greener economy. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that transitioning to a greener economy7 will not automatically translate to more gender-just societies. When it comes to equal opportunities for women in the context of work in green sectors, various concerns arise.

Agriculture is the largest employer of women in the MENA region. However, more often than not, these women have to endure exploitative and dangerous working conditions. These conditions include a wide gender pay gap, sexual harassment, exposure to health hazards, and informality that deprives them of any formal employment benefits. But there is hope. In Morocco, for instance, where women amount to almost half of agriculture workers, collective bargaining and negotiation for a union contract granted female workers various rights, including access to maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, and access to healthcare. This approach to improving the working conditions of female agriculture workers should urgently be replicated across countries in the region.

Despite the large number of women working in agriculture, only 5% of land across the region is owned by women. This is due to discriminatory laws (e.g., unequal inheritance) and cultural norms which provide men with more financial resources, especially in an economy that invests in green sectors. Demand for land for agriculture as well as for renewable energy is expected to rise as countries in the region make larger investments in such fields. Furthermore, as more countries in the region invest in lowering greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the risks of climate change, the availability of green jobs will rise. However, these jobs, especially those that are high-skilled and high-paid, are expected to be male-dominated, illustrating how a green economic system would still be a patriarchal one. Therefore, addressing the barriers that generally prevent women from entering or remaining in the labor market across the region remains a high feminist priority.

The Future of Work is Here

While some predict that the MENA region’s young population, the relatively limited mobility between countries, and the warmer climate will curb the severity of the pandemic, others expect that the stark economic inequalities that have been sparking protests across the region for a decade will now intensify. Therefore, principles of non-discrimination, equality, and solidarity must guide the region’s response to both the current crisis as well as the accelerated transition to the future world of work. Different realities based on gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation, and geographical location must take center stage in formulating responses to ensure that the least privileged are not left behind.

The current situation is accelerating the perpetuation of existing inequalities within the world of work which feminists have been highlighting for decades. These inequalities must be addressed by amplifying three main messages: (1) the risks associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be addressed much faster than previously planned—we no longer have the time we thought we did to discuss policy responses that ensure women and marginalized groups have a chance to thrive in the Future of Work; (2) care workers, both paid and unpaid, are the foundation of functioning and healthy societies, and as such their work must be immediately recognized, redistributed, and better valued; (3) when the world prioritizes human life, it goes to lengths previously perceived as impossible. With this knowledge, it is more important than ever to continue to push for a greener agenda while keeping in mind that a green economy under a patriarchal system must be questioned.

With challenges come opportunities. In a digitalized era, a new wave of feminism8 has arrived, one that utilizes innovative digital advocacy tools, builds fast-paced cross-border solidarity, and mobilizes communities like never before. It is crucial to support these feminist efforts in this critical time to ensure that women and girls have equal access to resources and opportunities to enable them to thrive, or, at the very least, attain decent employment in today’s challenging economy. The Future of Work is here and the time for concrete action is now.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a combination of technological advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region currently has the largest gender gap worldwide.

Digitalization is “the conversion of text, pictures, or sound into a digital form that can be processed by a computer.”

Care work consists of activities that require investment of time and energy to ensure the welfare of others, ultimately serving the greater community. These activities may be remunerated or unpaid.

The ILO identifies the Kafala system as one that “denies the migrant worker the basic human right to freedom of movement. The employer controls the mobility of the worker under the sponsorship system, through withholding their passport and legal control over their ability to change employment and exit from the country.”

For more information on COVID-19 and climate change, read “The corona recovery must be green” via the following link.

According to the UN Environment Programme, “A green economy is defined as low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive. In a green economy, growth in employment and income are driven by public and private investment into such economic activities, infrastructure and assets that allow reduced carbon emissions and pollution, enhanced energy and resource efficiency, and prevention of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

Emerging in the beginning of the 2010s, fourth wave feminism is characterized by the use of online platforms to spread a highly political, intersectional, and queer feminist discourse that encourages feminist activism and increases the potential for mobilization.