During this “recovery” phase of the MCO, the Malaysian government must integrate a gender-responsive framework into our COVID-19 policies, or risk setting back the fragile gains in gender equality progress we have made over the past decade. We need a “recovery” plan that is sensitive to the working conditions of women in Malaysia.
The pandemic continues to exacerbate the existing inequalities women experience in the labour market. As families confine themselves to the house and work-from-home arrangements persist, the unpaid care burden shouldered by women and girls has increased disproportionately. Without policies aimed at more equally distributing unpaid care work, women in Malaysia will be forced to quit the labour market altogether to take up more family responsibilities. Signs of this happening are already visible in the latest Labour Force Survey recently released.
Between January and April 2020, a net total of 183,960 prime-age workers had already left the labour force. This is the fastest rate of decline in the economically active population that we have witnessed in recent years. Amongst this group, most individuals cite care obligations as the primary reason for giving up employment. Some may also be women who had first struggled to find employment during the economic downturn and have decided to permanently exit the labour force to care for the family. Even though the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) does not disclose the gender composition of those who have left the labour force, this group of leavers has historically been made up of women workers. This trend will only be exacerbated for the second quarter (April to June 2020), which coincided with a longer duration of the lockdown during which there were mass closures or reduced operations of schools and care providers.
If the situation is left unchecked, we will see a continued widening of the gender gap in the workforce. In the long term, an extended period of not working also leaves many women with a loss of skills, promotion prospects and overall lower earning potential, further reinforcing the view that women’s work is secondary to the “breadwinner” within the household.
Here is how the government can act now to arrest this decline:
- Increase direct support for the social care sector
Even before the pandemic, Malaysia’s organised care sector, including childcare, palliative and elderly care was already dismally small. In Malaysia in 2017, social care workers comprised only 17% of the total healthcare and social services workforce, in contrast to the 41.2% of social care workers in the overall health workforce in Germany.
With the pandemic, providers are facing declining enrollment from families worried about the health risks of crowded spaces. In addition, social distancing measures have forced many providers to reduce enrolment and increase fees to recoup losses.
The danger now is that, after the pandemic, there will be even fewer options available for affordable care services. Post-pandemic, more working women may be forced to make the unenviable sacrifice of giving up paid employment altogether.
The recently announced Penjana stimulus package recognises the importance of care providers, including by providing RM 5,000 support to each childcare centre to assist with the cost of operations; increasing the tax exemption rate for childcare enrollment to RM 3,000 and providing RM 800 vouchers for babysitters.
However, the tax exemption is problematic since it does not apply to low-income families or unemployed individuals with no tax liabilities, precisely when struggling families require it the most to free up time for income-generating work. Only higher-income families–most of whom are already able to telecommute from home–would benefit from this scheme.
Furthermore, we also fear the RM 5,000 may not be enough to help providers retain staff, maintain operations and cover other fixed costs. One way to change the structure of this childcare assistance is to provide direct subsidies. Australia had announced temporary free childcare (April to July 2020) for all through direct subsidies to providers, effectively keeping afloat many providers while providing affordable services for vulnerable families.
- Pass Employment Act amendments which would protect against gender-based workplace discrimination and introduce paternity leave
Even with access to affordable services, without changing social norms, women’s work will continue to be seen as secondary. In many households, women’s work is frequently trivialised and regarded as expendable. Should disruption to care providers continue with subsequent waves of infection, women in Malaysia are more likely to give up paid employment compared to the male “breadwinner.”
One easy, but long-stalled reform to change this unhealthy gendered norm, is to immediately carry out the pending Employment Act 1955 amendments in the next parliamentary seating.
The amendments – which have already been drafted – include provisions against gender discrimination in the workplace, the right to flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and the introduction of paternity leave, among others. Without paternity leave, the care burden will continue to be placed solely on mothers. We repeat our call for these amendments in the next parliamentary seating.
- Reform the workplace to eliminate gender discrimination
Even with FWAs and parental leave, this might not be sufficient for working parents. These initiatives will backfire if women remain the primary users of these accommodations, further reinforcing the stereotype of women workers’ distracted by their family commitments.
A shift in workplace culture is needed, including by normalising and encouraging male workers to take up family obligations, eliminating the motherhood penalty in the hiring and promotion process, and instilling a culture that does not sanction one’s caregiving dues.
Such an attitudinal change at work may take time, but the government can begin to engage in social dialogue with the private sector through the National Labour Advisory Council. At the firm-level, the Women’s Aid Organisation’s ‘Level Up’ initiative, also carries out a third-party gender equality audit for private organisations to improve their diversity, inclusivity and create a workplace free from sexual harassment.
- Provide elder care support for families, a component which is conspicuously absent from Penjana
Despite eldercare being an important component of unpaid care work undertaken mostly by women, the Penjana stimulus package completely ignores eldercare services and focuses solely on childcare.
We call for the scope of the stimulus package and subsequent budget proposals to provide direct funding for long-term elder care services. In addition, we also need to provide more support for home-based and community-based services in a time when the preference for more localised services has increased.
Crises are often turning points in the way we do things. The government must immediately implement these short-term relief measures to ensure equitable working conditions for women in Malaysia. And in the long-term, as a society, we need to collectively seize this opportunity to rebuild a new and more equitable social order that includes those traditionally penalised on the basis of their gender.
About Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Since 1982, Women’s Aid Organisation has provided free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. We help women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities. Learning from women’s experiences, we advocate to improve public policies and shift public mindsets. Together, we change lives.
Call the WAO Hotline at 03 7956 3488 or SMS/WhatsApp TINA at 018 988 8058 if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse. For more information, visit wao.org.my.
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