The government and wider society must redistribute the care labour disproportionately carried out by women in Malaysia, the Women’s Aid Organisation writes.
In post-movement control order Malaysia, Covid-19 containment measures will continue to mandate work from home and restrict the opening of schools and care centres.
As the economy gradually returns to “normal”, many women in Malaysia will find themselves shouldering additional care work along with their professional responsibilities.
This impending care crisis – which worsens the burden on working women and further erodes gender equality in the workplace – requires urgent attention from the government.
The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) marked Labour Day by issuing an urgent call for the Malaysian government to formulate a plan for inclusive employment recovery that is sensitive to the needs of both men and women.
The government must immediately take steps to promote gender equality in post-movement control order ‘work-from-home’ Malaysia by:
Changing employment practices, such as:
(1) enabling flexible working arrangements for workers where possible
(2) immediately initiating steps to improve employers’ family-friendly facilities
(3) making compulsory the provision of paternity leave in the private sector, with a view towards increasing it in the future
Stepping up social protection measures for primary caregivers, by:
(4) dispensing care grants and gender-sensitive cash transfer programmes in subsequent rounds of the “caring” stimulus packages
(5) enforcing workers’ rights in cases of unfair workplace dismissals due to increased care work taken up by workers
A strong employment recovery after the crisis can only be achieved if we alleviate the care burdens of our workers by increasing:
(6) fiscal support for the early childhood care and education sector facing a collapse in enrolment. Formal care services are instrumental in promoting inclusive employment growth in the post-crisis world regardless of one’s gender, marital status and care responsibilities
Looming care crisis in Malaysia
Before the crisis, a study by the National Population and Family Development Board revealed that childcare arrangements in Malaysian households rely heaviest on grandparents’ care (25.1%), followed by babysitters (22.7%), own-care arrangements (18.2%), enrolment in childcare centres (8.7%), and finally relatives (5.9%).
In post-movement control orderMalaysia, these care structures will be upended, especially as operations of nurseries are restricted even after containment measures are lifted and as the elder population – who face greater vulnerabilities from Covid-19 infection – continue to reduce non-essential contact.
In turn, parental care will become the primary mode of care arrangement, putting new stresses on caregivers within the household.
Unfortunately, the new demands for unpaid care will further erode gender equality in our society. According to a study carried out by Khazanah Research Institute in 2019, even before the crisis, women in Malaysia are already putting in 2.1 more hours of unpaid care and domestic work than men.
This unequal gender distribution of unpaid care work within the household before the crisis will be worsened by the transference of care, with working mothers bearing the distressful double burden of paid work and unpaid care work.
In the short term, long care hours will lead to aggravated levels of mental and psychological distress. With secondary healthcare services being disrupted by the resource diversion brought on by Covid-19, women shouldering the additional care burden will be particularly hard-pressed when it comes to seeking psychosocial support.
In the long term, however, how care arrangements are distributed within the household will have a far-reaching impact on women’s economic participation in the world of income-generating activities.
A global survey has revealed that about 14% of women and 10% of men have considered leaving their jobs to meet the increased family demands resulting from enforced social distancing.
These trends are likely worse in Malaysia where the formal care economy has traditionally been small.
Already, a study carried out by Institut Wanita Berdaya (Women’s Empowerment Institute) amongst women in Selangor found that an alarming 28% of women have been left in the lurch by the enforced physical distancing, unable to find alternative care arrangements.
A prolonged crisis will force women to give up paid employment as they struggle to juggle work and care responsibilities.
Moreover, poor employment practices in Malaysia have, in the past, driven droves of women into flexible work that comes with less social protection, especially part-time and self-employed occupations.
According to figures by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, women in Malaysia are twice as likely as men to be in part-time occupations with shorter work hours.
In addition, the growth in numbers of self-employed women in the past five years has outpaced the growth in self-employed men. While women who enter these occupations may value the greater flexibility they offer, they sacrifice the social protection that comes with traditional employment.
The extended period of social and physical distancing in post-movement control order Malaysia will likely further accelerate the pace of deregulation of women’s employment.
To stave off this looming care crisis and its consequences on workplace gender equality, the government must prioritise immediate measures that reduce, recognise, and redistribute women’s unpaid care burdens.
Changing employment practices
Enabling flexible work arrangements for most workers. A survey carried out by TalentCorp in 2018 found that despite a strong commitment by firms to supporting work-life practices, the extent of implementation of actual flexible work arrangements often falls short.
Only 48% of Malaysian firms offer an option of flexible hours, 34% offer the possibility of leaving early from work and, dismally, only 16% offer a work from home choice. This is in stark contrast to the 60% of European workers who can easily take one or two hours off each working day to attend to personal matters.
In 2019, there were some proposals to ensure this right for workers through amendments to the Employment Act. While working towards these legislative amendments, the government should play an active role in shaping social dialogue between firms and employees in regulating work hours as a short-term immediate measure during the crisis.
Besides friendly work-life practices, family-friendly facilities and benefits can improve a working parent’s ability to balance work and family commitments. The Budget for this year had previously expanded childcare facilities in the public sector, especially the public healthcare and education sectors.
We call for this support to be extended to the private sector, where only 5% of Malaysian firms have on-site childcare facilities and only 6% of firms offer any childcare subsidies, despite the corporate tax incentives put in place to encourage this practice.
While maternity leave with employment protection is already widespread, Malaysia has only just begun to study the possibilities of compulsory paternity leave. These efforts, however, have been stalled by larger political changes and delayed parliamentary sessions.
We repeat our call for the immediate amendment to the Employment Act to enshrine seven-day paternity leave for fathers, while working towards increasing this benefit in the future.
Social protection for primary caregivers
Although unpaid care work remains an important “service” that will sustain us throughout the crisis, it is often under unremunerated, underappreciated and, in many cases, invisible to policymakers altogether.
As the crisis worsens women’s time poverty and takes an extra emotional and physical toll on primary caregivers, it is important that social protection policies do not overlook these invisible workers.
The current stimulus package makes no explicit ‘care’ entitlements despite how essential this service is, and unfairly shuts out women who are not “heads of households” from financial decision-making power in Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (National Caring Aid) payments.
To redress this, we call for more provision for care grants and cash transfers specifically to caregivers in subsequent stimulus packages.
It is likely that workplace gender discrimination will become more pronounced over the next months, as struggling firms demand more from their workers.
The government must formulate a plan to ensure the smooth operations of the Industrial Court under extended social distancing conditions in post-movement control order Malaysia to ensure redress is still available to workers who are also primary caregivers and facing unfair dismissals.
In this critical time, we need workplaces that are compassionate towards the predicament of their workers, especially those who are also primary caregivers.
Support early education and care sector
The Covid-19 crisis will lead to the collapse of the already small formal early childhood care and education sector in Malaysia. The government should step up support for providers in this sector facing a looming collapse as children are withdrawn from programmes en masse even after the resumption of normal operations in the post-movement control order period.
A viable early education and care sector is essential for a strong post-Covid-19 recovery, as robust employment growth after the economic crisis is possible only if the working-age population is not saddled with unpaid care duties.
This Labour Day is an opportune moment to reflect on the different working realities for men and women in Malaysia. Care labour, especially informal care work, has traditionally been undervalued as a fundamental service for the productive economy.
It is high time that the government, alongside the wider society, revalues and redistributes the care labour disproportionately carried out by women in Malaysia.