Coronavirus and Inequality

Guest post, written by Monica Atwal, Managing Partner at Clarkslegal

“In some ways Covid-19 is non-discriminatory, anyone can get it.  But as the pandemic has unfolded it is clear it has a greater impact on certain groups, and it has impacted females within the workplace.

It is estimated that 70% of the frontline healthcare workforce in the UK are women, this means that they are by their occupation, at a higher rate of infection, and indeed mortality. Women still do the majority of caring roles, and although we have all applauded their herculean service, this needs to translate into meaningful economic security for low paid roles.  The irony is that the death rate is strikingly different for males and females, so on the statistics females are more likely to survive.

The sectors that have been significantly impacted or entirely shut down, retail and hospitality, also employ a large number of females.   Accordingly, females in these industries are likely to have been furloughed.  The Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is subject to a financial cap, and many on furlough will have had their pay reduced.   The UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that females are about one-third more likely than men to work in the retail or hospitalities industries.   Whilst we are being encouraged from mid-June to go out and shop as the lockdown lifts, even with the safety measures,  it is clear that neither customers or retailers will return to pre-lockdown habits.   Industries that have restarted such as manufacturing and construction, have a larger male workforce.  This means that females are in roles and occupations that are more likely to be furloughed and stay on the furlough scheme longer, all the while their employers are losing money or tolerating little operational income.

If you are able to work from home, but the schools are not open,  again females will predominantly take a larger proportion of child care duties and are more likely to seek to amend and reduce their working hours to maintain a work-life balance for their family unit.  Working may not be an option for single parents.   The way we work has been turned on its head, so there is also the real opportunity for transformation and acceleration of sharing of parental caring roles which was a trend before Covid-19.

But there is a tsunami of job losses on its way, and the economic impact of Covid-19 will hit the UK hard.   This will impact all.   Analysis of other countries who are at more advanced points in the job loss Coronavirus cycle shows that mounting overall unemployment means that pre-existing inequalities get reinforced unless the disadvantage is recognised and addressed.    The US, which had the highest spike in unemployment in March saw women losing jobs more than men.  In the UK, we know there is a gender pay gap, so the reality will be that women will lose their jobs at higher rates from roles that were paid on average 12p less for each pound.

Further, although there is protection for employees on redundancies and against discrimination, the fundamental issue is that employers will need to re-organise and restructure and that will mean job losses across the board.  It is legally difficult to challenge a redundancy, and the emphasis must go on policy decisions that look at support, re-education and redefining job opportunities of the future.  Covid, Brexit and automation will fundamentally change jobs, and policy makers need to reconceptualise labour policy and scrutinise through many lenses, including gender, class and race to ensure there is opportunities for work for all.  Employers who have had a good run and the benefit of government support should have ongoing obligations to employment opportunities.   There is a broad spectrum of employment law protection, but it is noteworthy that many of the Taylor Reform recommendations on the gig economy were not implemented, which directly impacted provision of support in this crisis to those with little work security, and that funding and Covid-19 has also affected the justice system and access to justice.    The Government was bold in introducing the CJRS; it now needs to be brave maintaining and developing employment rights that are the foundations of successful businesses, innovation, and growth.”