Chancellor Rishi Sunak won plaudits for the UK government’s furlough scheme, which helped stave off mass unemployment when vast swathes of the UK economy went into lockdown. But as the end of that initiative draws near and a new job support scheme takes its place, little has been done to avoid the gender discriminatory pitfalls that are frequently found in job protection schemes. The result is that female workers again look set to be disproportionately excluded from receiving adequate support.
Like the furlough scheme, the new scheme will be particularly used in hard-hit retail and hospitality sectors. These are mostly staffed by women. Women are also over-represented among the most vulnerable workers within these sectors. They are employed on a temporary basis – including casually, on fixed-term contracts or through an agency – at a higher rate than male workers.
This gendered segregation of contract types within the hardest-hit parts of the economy is important when we think of the supposed aim of the job support scheme – to help people keep their jobs, as long as those jobs are “viable”.
Though the scheme is accessible to a wide range of workers, including those on non-permanent contracts, employers have discretion over who to put on the scheme and who to let go now and once the scheme ends. Research into job protection schemes after the 2008 financial crisis shows that while employment rates among permanent, full-time employees tended to return to pre-crisis levels, temporary and zero-hours workers were typically not retained once the scheme wound down. Though many workers on non-standard contracts (such as zero hours) were furloughed as of May, temporary workers were more likely to have simply lost their jobs.
Lessons from Germany?
Even Germany’s “kurzarbeit” scheme, which is held up as the archetypal example of an effective job protection scheme, has bias against non-standard jobs baked into it that disproportionately affects women. This is because people in part-time, mostly service-sector jobs known as “mini jobs” are not eligible.
Poorly paid and exempt from social security, these jobs form a major category of employment for women, especially mothers. So their exclusion from income protection exacerbates existing gender inequalities.
A further issue in Germany is that trade unions have been successful in increasing the compensation level for many workers. In local government, metalworking and the chemical industry, for example, workers get 90% of their normal wages and above. But fewer female-dominated, low-wage industries are covered by collective agreements, generating another source of inequality.
While the UK does not have mini-jobs and unions are weaker, this sort of bias is likely to creep into the implementation of its jobs scheme. Employers are likely to view non-standard and especially temporary workers – many of them women – as more disposable. And given that the new job support scheme makes it cheaper for employers to employ one person full-time rather than two people part-time, these decisions are coming soon.
On top of this, 69% of low-wage workers in the UK are women, and the majority of workers paid less than the national minimum wage are women.
Under the new job support scheme and the furlough scheme, workers are not entitled to the minimum wage. Yet low-paid workers were more likely to have been furloughed on 80% of their pay than higher paid workers. This may lead to dangerously low levels of income for already low-paid women.
Countries such as Norway are dealing with this by replacing a higher proportion of income for lower paid workers. Meanwhile schemes in Estonia, France, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia set the minimum wage as the lower limit for replacement income.
The situation is even worse for those who care for others. There is already evidence that the furlough scheme has been used in a discriminatory way against women with caring responsibilities. This may well continue under the new job scheme. For example, mothers are far more likely than other groups to have lost their job permanently, instead of being placed on furlough or offered fewer or flexible hours.
A bill currently being debated in parliament seeks to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination – already rife before the current crisis – prohibiting redundancy for six months after pregnancy or maternity leave ends. While employers have discretion over who to keep on under the new job scheme, and while this bill is still under debate, they may unfairly take caring responsibilities and maternity into account.
Sadly, the fact that these support schemes disproportionately help men comes as no surprise. Research has long shown how social policies – such as ensuring equitable access to the minimum wage – can mitigate the disproportionate economic risks faced by women, but often fail to do so.
Underlying the design and implementation of these schemes is perhaps a perception that women’s employment is an optional extra. This could not be more mistaken given the reliance of many families on dual incomes, the rise of female breadwinners , single parent families and single women’s need for income.
Britain has already lost so much as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. With a lack of attention to baked-in gender discrimination in new social and economic protection plans, it risks losing progress on gender equality too.
Rose Cook receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.