Informal women workers and the COVID-19 pandemic: Voices from Asia and the Pacific

An illustration showing four persons. One is holding a child. Two have their arms around each other and are facing away.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold, testimonies from the UAF A&P grantee network have revealed that women, especially women workers involved in the informal sector, and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) have been dealing with a wide intersection of burdens every day.

Many of these challenges were brought on by the restrictions announced by countries in the region as responses to the pandemic, and many aggravated existing problems. “The health crisis is seen by the administration as a security problem foremost, as opposed to being primarily a public health emergency,” said an activist organisation from South East Asia.

Voices of women workers and WHRDs from Asian and Pacific countries centre the multi-layered effects of ill-planned economic and mobility restrictions. The overarching problems have been:

  1. Food Insecurity caused by loss of jobs during lockdowns and Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) periods, unreliable job recalls, low income, rising prices of food items, and low nutritional levels because of poor quality/quantity of food;
  2. Loss of Wages experienced by most informal workers in the region — a domestic workers’ union from South Asia reported that no wages were paid during the lockdown period;
  3. Loss of Jobs that further compounded problems faced by informal workers, including domestic workers and migrant workers, as employers refused to re-hire them due to fears of COVID-19 infections and their own financial difficulties;
  4. Inadequate State Aid, which meant that informal workers were often left out of relief measure efforts, or had to face delays and disrespectful behaviour to access meagre government aid;
  5. Elderly Workers who could often not access government-subsidised medicines and could not negotiate lighter workloads;
  6. Increased militarisation and police checks, initiated to reinforce restrictions and impose “cruel punishments” on citizens forced to come out for food, cash, or help;
  7. Lack of Information from the government on the local COVID-19 situation and relief efforts;
  8. Lack of Mobility and public transportation that affected choices of migrant workers;
  9. Urban-centric Policies that do not look into the distinct context of rural areas.

Gendered realities of women workers and rights defenders

In the wake of the pandemic and the restrictions announced by governments, women in the region are balancing more work and more uncertainty than ever before.

A domestic workers’ union from South Asia revealed that, “Almost all the workers did not have work for several months. Since workers were only able to buy food on a day-to-day basis, they couldn’t access food on most days. Sustenance was often rice with some leaf or vegetable in broth. Sugar was cut, milk was cut, and for some, soap was not accessible. When food was available, women prioritised feeding their children over themselves.” Personal hygiene is another area where women are making compromises to accommodate low household incomes.

“Enforcement of the enhanced community quarantine protocol is anti-poor, anti-rural, and anti-women,” said an activist organisation from South East Asia.

Women in the region also revealed several incidences of violence at the workplace and of domestic violence at home. But the reporting of gender-based violence was determined to be low during this period because of ‘compounded problems’ like restrictive transport, shelter, finances, and more. “In cases when they try to access justice, women are silenced because the structures are seemingly not working and the system is failing them, too,” a grantee stated.

The large ‘mental load’ on women workers and defenders during this time has raised concerns about their mental health and well-being. Their everyday stress stems from household chores, care-taking of family members, especially of children who are at home all the time, sustaining their homes with small or no incomes, and worries about mobility and health. In addition to this, women in the regions have also been looking for ways to earn more money. “However, due to mobility restrictions, women farmers and informal workers are forced to stay at home and sell their products, if possible, in nearby areas,” said a grantee.

Women frontline workers report constant stress of work, possibilities of infection, distancing from family, and social judgement. An activist organisation based in South East Asia voiced the plight of a worker who was required by the hospital rules to not commute from her home to work daily, requiring her to spend over a month away from her family. “When she returned, she said she has to face rumours of being infected, which caused her distress.”

A few women have also taken up frontline COVID-19 response work with the local government despite the risks involved. “Given that most of them do not have regular income, they accepted the job so their family can survive. In the course of doing their volunteer work, they received inquiries and text messages, or were directly approached by some women in the communities, to ask information on where to get relief support or even to borrow money.”

A women’s collective in South East Asia highlighted the problems brought on by relief efforts that remain “gender-neutral and scarce”, and the absence of women’s experiences in databases. “Their problems as elderly women and women with disability or diverse SOGIE are neither properly documented nor recognised by the government. This is the reason why their issues remain hidden in the communities.”

Women are responding with collective models of care and support

To cope with the daily burdens of work, care, and lack of relief information, women workers and WHRDs are relying on community care models and alternate income-generation activities.

“Every minute of the day women in the communities are faced by survival-related concerns of the family — where to get relief goods, where to get money, where they can borrow money, if they have money, what to eat, when they will eat, how to pay the money that they will borrow. Before COVID, women were already having difficulty budgeting the meager take-home pay of their husbands. Now, the situation worsened because there is nothing to budget but the need has become bigger — the members of the family are all staying at home, which means: more water and electric consumption, frequent hunger, and more clothes and dishes to wash,” said an activist organisation from South East Asia.

A domestic workers’ union from South Asia created a Food Bank by purchasing rice and plants in bulk and stocking them in their office, and over a two-month period, provided workers with rice and plants in small batches. The plants included chilli, papaya, lime and vegetables. “Given that their reality is that they don’t have secure work, they found the food bank a real support during this time. The food bank also helped to develop a real sense of ownership.” The union leaders usually run very interactive meetings, collect subscription fees, and distribute food bank provisions of rice, while also following hand washing and social distancing rules, and distribute masks stitched by the union among workers who come to the office.

A grantee from the Pacific states, “We are expanding our efforts to promote food sovereignty, focusing not just on food security, but also on the problems caused by marginalization and economic dependency. We start with valuing traditional foods, promoting traditional medicine, and returning to the solesolevaki way of farming. By starting with a communal farm “food/seed basket” where communities plant their source materials together — to ensure a greater likelihood of crop success — before taking it to their individual farms. We are working to strengthen the Na I likoliko ni Vanua — the land given to women when married into a tribe to help establish her family and food source.”

Workers in another region who have had to borrow money to buy daily supplies are trying to sell produce from their gardens, and cooking snacks and food at home and selling it secretly so as to not alert law enforcement authorities. But even selling has become a struggle because people in the communities do not have money to buy commodities.

(Specific grantee details, identity, and locations are being withheld to protect their confidentiality. However, the stories they shared are universal, and UAF A&P is disseminating them so that their voices are amplified and can add to a larger body of information and experiences that we can learn from and/or replicate.)

A regional women’s human rights and feminist fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women and non-binary human rights defenders in Asia and the Pacific