Will 2022 be the year we change our understanding of work?


The rapid spread of the disease, the lack of access to health care (including vaccines and oxygen beds), the loss of livelihoods and the rise of interpersonal gendered violence were unsurprising; they were just accelerated and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Rather than ask what the pandemic’s gendered impact would be on the future of work, it behoves us to ask what the pandemic teaches us about gender and work.

Outside agriculture, 85% of women workers are street vendors, petty traders, seasonal workers or domestic workers. In India, this is almost 60%. They were the first livelihood casualties of the pandemic, losing jobs and businesses that were barely sustaining them at subsistence levels.

The primary purpose of a person’s work can surely not be just to serve the interest of a company or an economy.

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The primary purpose of a person’s work can surely not be just to serve the interest of a company or an economy. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

With few accessible social security benefits, their families sank into debt and poverty even as there were more mouths to feed, health care costs and, not to mention, home schooling pressures. The first lesson of the pandemic is that we cannot address the future of work without making this massive workforce visible, delivering social security benefits to the precariously employed and offering renewal credit to micro-businesses such as fruit and tea-stalls and petty traders, comparable to that received by small businesses.

Women were celebrated as ‘Corona Warriors’ even as they served as ASHA workers, nurses, doctors, caregivers or conservancy workers. We also learnt that they swelled the ranks of delivery personnel at a time when much of the middle class has depended on deliveries.

The celebration did not extend to occupational protections, enhanced health services or even regular salaries. In a just society, the most essential workers would get the most secure work conditions and generous work benefits. If we want people to undertake this work, we must show that it is important to us.

Safety nets needed

Let us take a minute to consider the broader impact of women disappearing from public spaces—from the market, from the sidewalks, from public transport. The immediate impact is that these spaces immediately become unsafe for other women, who are offered a modicum of comfort and security in mixed gender spaces. This affects younger women disproportionately, as unsafe public spaces mean they are stopped from attending college or taking up a job, in their turn.

Masculinised public spaces underscore a masculinised public sphere. Will women find it comfortable to participate in rallies and protests if they are a small minority outdoors?

While we first noticed the impact of covid-19 on urban workers, it has also had an impact on agriculture. First, the toll of the disease and care needs had farm workers leaving crops standing while tending to the sick. As men who had migrated to cities came home, women lost jobs, families took on more debt and with mounting debt, families were bereft, indebted and usually, landless. The lack of land rights and the lack of recognition of their rights in land and forest policies undercuts women’s resilience.

In both urban and rural settings, the burden of domestic and care work, usually unpaid, falls disproportionately on women. In small, local surveys, men often commented that they were surprised by how much work the household required, sometimes motivating them to help. Hopefully, we also now understand the centrality of this labour to keeping the wheels of the mostly-male public economy in motion.

Working from home has been a mixed bag. It has provided women flexibility to some extent, cutting down commuting time and cost. But this flexibility has largely facilitated the management of household and professional labour, not professional labour and self-care or hobbies. The result is burn-out.

All women could not take the ability to work from home for granted; it depended on having access to a suitable device, connectivity and power, but more rarely, a quiet physical space and undisturbed work time. In patriarchal societies, the needs of the men in the household and children are prioritized and we cannot assume women can find a place to sit and work. If the future workplace is partly or mostly remote, then employers will have to enable work-from-home by providing considerably more infrastructural support.

Scholars have already started to measure the gendered difference in academic productivity during the pandemic, whether in terms of professional visibility or research output. In the corporate sector, young people are being cautioned that choosing to work from home, particularly in the earliest stages of their career, will hurt them in the long run, in terms of learning and networks. Many women will be in this position at the end of the pandemic.

The purpose of work

Above all, as we have adapted and adjusted to different ways of working, new levels of economic precarity and faced more bereavement in two years than we usually do in a decade, we must ask as we contemplate the future of work: What is the point of work? If the answer is sustenance and survival, then society must build the infrastructure of resilience in a downturn—accessible social services and a universal basic income, perhaps.

If the answer is creativity and self-expression, then maintenance tasks at work and home should be equally shared, as should be the support infrastructure—from the solitary work-surface to the Internet. The primary purpose of a person’s work can surely not be just to serve the interest of a company or an economy.

Our understanding of efficiency and productivity are, however, still tagged to the last. How much did you accomplish, seems to require a quantitative answer—so many rupees of business, so many articles, so many items. Our use of terms like ‘delivery’ and ‘deliverables’ liken us to machines—how many X can we churn out in an hour, a day, a week? Covid-19 struck down ‘productive’ individuals, and we have to question the point of their productivity. Was it worth it, if it couldn’t get them a hospital bed or good nutrition or a vaccine?

If we are finding that women have been less productive than men during the pandemic, despite patently working at least as hard, then it is also important to question both our yardsticks and the assumptions we make when we use them.

Most obviously, are we holding on to expectations from a time when hiring a man meant also hiring (for the same amount) his wife who would perform life maintenance and care work along with a team of domestic helpers? When we provide parental leave only for women, then only women are able to take leave and are disadvantaged by having to have career breaks. It is time to dismantle these gendered codes that are embedded in our understanding of work.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist, author, peace educator and founder of Prajnya, a non-profit that works in the area of gender equality.

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