Excluded from the economy, but ‘women work all the time’

South Africa’s unemployment crisis has deepened despite the economy having started to recover from Covid-19’s onslaught. And even when there is some measure of economic recovery, women are on the back foot. 

So says Cheryl-Lyn Selman, a researcher at the Institute for Economic Justice.

South Africa’s unemployment statistics are set to be released next week. The data will add more detail to an already dire picture of the country’s jobs crisis, in which the official unemployment rate has hit 34.9%. The data will also reveal more about how South Africa’s ruthless labour market favours men over women — who, experts say, continue to battle in an economy that excludes them.

On the back foot

According to Statistics South Africa, a woman is more likely to be without a job than a man. In the third quarter of 2021 the unemployment rate among women was 37.3%, compared to a  total unemployment rate of 32.9%.

Under the expanded definition of unemployment — which counts economically inactive people in the labour force still looking for work, as well as discouraged work-seekers — the unemployment rate among women is 51%.

A deeper look into the current data reveals that the unemployment crisis among women is drawn along racial lines: The unemployment rate among black women is 41%, compared to 29.1% among coloured women, 25.2% among Asian women and 9.9% among white women.

In order to bring women into the fold, Selman said, South Africa’s economy needs to change fundamentally.

“We have a capitalist economy that is based on a kind of political organisation of precarity in the labour market … Structurally there is a kind of work that feeds into building up that capitalist system and keeping it going,” Selman said.

Many of South Africa’s key sectors, including mining, are shored up by the unpaid labour of women supporting male workers, Selman added. 

Anita Bosch, the research chair for women at work at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, said the skills that women develop in their lifetimes — such as cooking, cleaning and caregiving — are valued differently economically to skills that boys and men are encouraged to possess. That is a primary root of differential access to the economy. 

 
“The traditional reasons that exclude women from the economy, such as childcare or elder care, also prohibit them from participating in economic activities that allow them to earn an income. That is still the biggest issue in our economy,” Bosch said.  

Expected to be a caregiver

Bosch explained that because of racism, sexism and other “-isms” the current trend is that young black women do not want to participate, as a choice, in the caregiving kinds of occupations unless there is no choice because they see that it leads nowhere economically. 

“Remember, when we are talking about gender and gender inclusion we are actually talking about economic inclusion,” she said. 

Because of how society is structured, if a woman does end up entering the workforce, she is already at a disadvantage, Selman said.

“If you are a woman and you do the same job as a man the likelihood is that you will earn less hour for hour than a man …. Often when employers are hiring a woman, part of the thinking is, ‘Is this woman going to have children and what is the cost going to be to the business to have her on maternity leave?’” Selman added.

Women may also ultimately opt out of their opportunities to participate in the formal economy, because society expects her to be a caregiver, Selman added. “There is this entire ecosystem that perpetuates itself. And I think because women often buy into that structure, or because they are so exhausted, it is difficult to fight. They kind of just do the best that they can.”

Fiscal policy has made it even more difficult for women to fight to be part of the labour force, Selman said, noting that budget cuts to the health and education departments will have a “massive” impact on women.

According to the national treasury’s budget for 2022, real consolidated healthcare expenditure is set to decline by R12.6-billion between 2021-22 and 2024-25. In the same period, spending on learning and culture will decrease by R13.5-billion.

“Women are predominantly employed in the healthcare sector. Women are predominantly employed in education as teachers,” Selman noted. 

“So because of the way the budget is structured, there will be fewer jobs available. There will be more children in the classroom. And then if a child is to succeed in their school career, the burden then falls to the parents, and that is typically a woman … So the way that we look at fiscal policy is not neutral.”

Measures to relieve the burden

The 2021 Women’s Report, which Bosch edits, focused on childcare as an enabler of women’s economic participation. 

The report recommends cash transfers to women in order to ease the burden of unpaid care work, mandated paternity leave, providing affordable access to childcare services, family-friendly workplaces and extending the school day to support working mothers.

“As it stands now, women shoulder the burden of childcare at the expense of their

work. We should not forget that it is men who benefit most from this imbalance,” says the report. 

Selman compared South Africa to Sweden, which has one of the highest rates of employment for women. Sweden offers 480 days of paid parental leave and early childhood development care.

Women in Sweden, Selman explained, are less restrained in participating in the labour market. “None of these things are by accident. It is the structure. How we choose to spend and how we choose the framework through which we see the economy can literally change our future. But we are dragging our heels.”

One policy intervention that activists and certain economists have been calling for is a universal basic income grant, which would help compensate women for unpaid care work.

“There is a sense in which our economy recognises the value of formality. But we work all the time,” Selman said.

“If you happen to be a woman in South Africa, then it means that you’re going to work just as hard as every other woman and often harder than a man … It is about restructuring the framework to say, how do we create policies that recognise the value of everyone in the economy and we pay for everyone’s work? Because everyone is working all the time.”


Anathi Madubela is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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Anathi Madubela
Anathi Madubela is a business journalist with a keen interest in the retail sector.
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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