COVID-19 Pandemic has Caused a Setback of Over a Decade in Labor Market Participation for Women in Region

In a new special report, ECLAC stresses that it is essential to advance toward policies that contribute to a sustainable recovery with gender equality in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on employment and labor conditions for women in Latin America and the Caribbean, generating a setback of more than a decade in terms of the progress achieved in labor market participation, according to Special Report COVID-19 No. 9: The economic autonomy of women in a sustainable recovery with equality, released today by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

According to the report, the rate of job market participation by women was at 46% in 2020, while for men it was 69% (in 2019, these rates were 52% and 73.6%, respectively). It is further estimated that the unemployment rate for women reached 12% in 2020, a percentage that rises to 22.2% if we factor in women’s participation in the labor force in 2019. In 2020, the study explains, there was a mass exodus of women from the labor force, who have not returned to search for employment, having to attend to care demands at home.

The decline in regional gross domestic product (GDP) (-7.7% in 2020) and the impact of the crisis on employment are negatively affecting household income, says the report presented at a press conference by Alicia Bárcena, ECLAC’s Executive Secretary. The United Nations regional organization estimates that around 118 million Latin American women are living in poverty, 23 million more than in 2019.

“The women of the region are a crucial part of the frontline response to the pandemic. Some 73.2% of people employed in the health sector are women, who have had to face extreme working conditions such as long work days, in addition to increased risk of contagion as health personnel. All of this in a regional context in which salary discrimination persists, where salaries for women who work in the health sector are 23.7% less than men’s in the same sector,” pointed out Alicia Bárcena.

The study further underscores that paid domestic work, characterized as highly precarious and impossible to do remotely, has been one of the sectors hit hardest by the crisis. In 2019, before the pandemic, around 13 million people worked in paid domestic labor (91.5% of them women). In total, this sector employed 11.1% of employed women in the region. However, in the second quarter of 2020, the employment levels in paid domestic work fell -24.7% in Brazil; -46.3% in Chile; -44.4% in Colombia; -45.5% in Costa Rica; -33.2% in Mexico; and -15.5% in Paraguay.

“Latin America and the Caribbean must invest in the care economy and recognize it as a dynamizing sector in the recovery, with multiplying effects on wellbeing, the redistribution of time and income, labor participation, growth and tax revenue,” asserted the ECLAC senior authority.

In this context, Bárcena encouraged governments to “prioritize health workers in their vaccination strategies – including persons who provide associated services like cleaning, transport and care – as well as those working in educations systems and domestic health, most of them women, who are a fundamental pillar for the care and sustainability of life.”

According to the ECLAC report, 56.9% of women in Latin America and 54.3% in the Caribbean are employed in sectors where the pandemic is expected to have a higher negative impact in terms of employment and income.

According to the study, the closing of borders, restrictions on mobility, the fall in international trade and paralysis of internal production have impacted the female workers and businesswomen associated with sectors like commerce, tourism and manufacturing. For instance, the tourism sector, where 61.5% of positions are occupied by women, suffered a significant contraction that mainly affected the countries of the Caribbean, where one in 10 working women are employed in this sector.

During the presentation of the report, ECLAC’s Executive Secretary highlighted the urgent need to reinforce employment policies and ensure that women participate in the dynamizing sectors of the economy in decent working conditions. She likewise emphasized the importance of combining measures aimed at employment support and reactivation with measures of immediate attention to losses in income.

In this context it is “urgent that we promote inclusive processes of digital transformation that guarantee women access to technologies, strengthen their abilities and remove the socioeconomic barriers they face in order to strengthen their economic autonomy,” underlined Alicia Bárcena, while at the same time stressing the low fiscal effort posed by the basic digital basket proposed by ECLAC (1% of regional GDP) and the enormous impact connecting one of every four women in Latin America and the Caribbean would have.

“It is essential that we advance toward a new fiscal compact that promotes gender equality and prevents the deepening of poverty levels among women, the burden of non-paid work and the reduction of financing for gender policies,” she warned.

“In addition to having a gender perspective that cuts across all recovery policies, affirmative actions are required in the areas of fiscal, labor, productive, economic and social policies to protect the rights of women achieved in the past decade, prevent setbacks and take on gender inequalities in the short, medium and long terms,” concluded Bárcena.

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