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KUALA LUMPUR, May 1 — The Malaysian government can introduce six key measures as the country is expected to face a new crisis when the movement control order (MCO) ends, as caregivers — typically women — who carry out the invisible and underappreciated work of unpaid care of their families while also juggling work come under further pressure, the Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) said yesterday.
The WAO said this was crucial to not only ensure gender equality and a redistribution of women's burden to be more equally shared by men, but to also ultimately help Malaysia's economy recover after taking a serious hit from the Covid-19 pandemic and MCO.
How the 'care crisis' might look like for Malaysia
Malaysia is currently in the middle of an eight-week MCO, which requires the shutdown of all non-essential businesses and which has resulted in companies shifting to have their employees continue to work from home.
“In post-MCO 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 simultaneously with their professional responsibilities.
“This impending care crisis, which exacerbates the burden on working women and further erodes gender equality in the workplace, requires urgent attention from the government,” WAO said in a statement in conjunction with Labour Day today.
Citing the National Population and Family Development Board's Fifth Malaysian Population and Family Survey 2014, WAO noted that the study found Malaysian families relied on grandparents for childcare (25.1 per cent), followed by babysitters (22.7 per cent), own-care arrangements (18.2 per cent), childcare centres (8.7 per cent) and relatives (5.9 per cent).
But in a Malaysia after the MCO, WAO predicted that nurseries' operations will be restricted while the elderly who are more vulnerable from Covid-19 infections would also continue to reduce non-essential contact, noting that this will make parents the primary caregivers for their children and put new stress on caregivers within the household.
Why this crisis will be bad
WAO pointed out that a Khazanah Research Institute study in 2019 already showed women in Malaysia spending 2.1 more hours compared to men for unpaid care and housework, before going on to say this unequal distribution of unpaid family care responsibilities will only worsen with working mothers juggling the double burden of working and caring for their families.
“In the short term, long care hours will lead to aggravated levels of mental and psychological distress,” WAO said, adding that women would find it harder to seek the necessary support with healthcare resources diverted to fighting Covid-19 and disrupting secondary healthcare services.
As for the longer-term effects of a “care crisis”, WAO pointed out that a prolonged crisis could force women to give up paid employment as a result of their struggle to juggle both work and care responsibilities.
WAO referred to studies such as the Selangor Women’s Empowerment Institute (IWB) survey where 28 per cent of women polled do not have anyone to help them with family care during the MCO, and also a survey by software firm Syndio where about 14 per cent of women polled and close to 12 per cent of men polled considered quitting their jobs to better manage their family responsibilities amid Covid-19.
Even if women do not quit their jobs, WAO said poor practices by employers have in the past forced women to choose to do part-time jobs or become self-employed due to the greater flexibility, but which also means they have to sacrifice by getting less social protection than if they were to be in full-time employment.
WAO expected the situation to worsen, citing the Department of Statistics Malaysia's (DOSM) figures that already show women in Malaysia to be twice as likely as men to be in part-time jobs with shorter work hours, while the rate of women becoming self-employed had grew faster in the past five years when compared to men becoming self-employed.
Six tips for Putrajaya
“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,” WAO said.
WAO listed three categories of measures that the Malaysian government could take to promote gender equality in the country after the MCO under the new normal of working from home — namely changing employment practices, stepping up social protection measures for primary caregivers, and increasing financial support to childcare centres and preschools.
The six measures that WAO said can be taken are:
1. Enabling flexible working arrangements where possible
Noting that there were already proposals last year to amend the Employment Act to ensure flexible working arrangements are available for workers, WAO said the government should — while working towards changing the law — “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”.
2. Immediately initiating steps to improve employers' family-friendly facilities
WAO said Budget 2020 had already expanded childcare facilities in the public sector, urging that this support be extended to the private sector, as family-friendly facilities and benefits would improve a working parent’s ability to balance their work and family commitments.
Despite tax incentives to companies, WAO noted that only 5 per cent of Malaysian firms have on-site childcare facilities and only 6 per cent offer any childcare subsidies.
3. Making it compulsory for the private sector to provide paternity leave, with a view to increasing it in the future
“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-days paternity leave for fathers, while working towards increasing this benefit in the future,” it said.
4. Dispensing care grants, gender-sensitive cash transfer programmes in subsequent rounds of Prihatin economic stimulus packages
WAO noted that unpaid care work is often underappreciated and “invisible” to policymakers, stressing that financial support should be given to such “invisible workers” who are typically women.
“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 payments,” it said.
5. Enforcing workers’ rights in cases of unfair workplace dismissals due to increased care work taken up by workers
Expecting struggling firms to demand more from their workers in coming months that would likely lead to increased gender discrimination at the workplace, WAO anticipated possible unfair dismissals of employees who have to care for their families.
“The government must formulate a plan to ensure the smooth operations of the Industrial Court under extended social distancing conditions in post-MCO Malaysia in order 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,” it said.
6. Fiscal support for the early childhood care and education (ECCE) sector facing collapse
WAO also said the Covid-19 crisis could mean a collapse of the small ECCE sector in Malaysia with parents potentially withdrawing their children en masse even after such centres resume normal operations post-MCO, which it said means the government should step up support for the sector.
“A viable EEC 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,” it said.
The MCO which started on March 18 is currently scheduled to end May 12.