Cleaners, carers and sex workers: how feminised industries have been hit hardest during the pandemic.

This was given as a talk at an online panel organised by Another Europe is Possible, entitled ‘The Covid Crisis Is a Feminist Issue’ (May 2020)

Since lockdown Feminist Fightback has been using our social media to highlight how the pandemic is affecting less visible groups of women workers especially care workers, sex workers and cleaners. So I thought this might be a useful thing to talk about today, and hopefully complement what other speakers will say about the very varied gendered impact of Covid 19.

The two main sex worker-led organisations, the English Collective of Prostitutes and SWARM, have pointed out that sex workers are now almost completely unable to make a living as the industry has ground to a halt. Sex work is a semi-criminalised industry and many sex workers have uncertain immigration status. It is therefore impossible for most of them to be ‘furloughed’ or to access government support schemes for the self-employed.

NHS care workers and cleaners are often outsourced and do not get proper sick pay. Instead, they’re expected to survive on statutory sick pay of £96 a week, putting huge financial pressure on them to come into work anyway: compounding the public health crisis and putting their own lives in danger. Many of these workers are BME, and these are the kinds of economic conditions that are contributing to the horrifying fact the Covid virus seems to be killing disproportionately more black and brown people. Unions such as the IWGB, United Voices of the World have all been working hard to address these injustices.

Cleaners in private houses have received hardly any media attention, and less union support. This is despite the fact that one in 10 households now employ cleaners, although since the lockdown most of these have laid off their cleaners without any kind of payment. Private cleaning is a very informal industry, many cleaners do not earn anywhere near enough to be eligible to pay tax, and so don’t declare their earnings. This means that they are now completely ineligible to apply not only for the government self-employed scheme, but also for statutory sick pay.

‘Live-in’ domestic workers, e.g. nannies and full-time cleaners, are in an even worse situation, often losing their housing in addition to their wages. Many of them are migrant workers whose visa status depends upon their continued employment within a particular family. The NGO Voices of Domestic Workers has created an emergency fund for many of its members who have been made completely destitute as a result of being summarily fired in response to the pandemic. Some people have suggested that private cleaners should just go and get cleaning jobs in hospitals instead, but household cleaning is a job done mainly by mothers with young children because it can be fitted around childcare. And cleaners (wherever they work) have not been included in the government’s list of key workers, which means that their children will not be eligible for child care in schools.

Why have these apparently quite different types of worker (sex workers, care workers and cleaners) all been particularly badly affected by the pandemic and fallen through the government’s meagre safety nets? The answer is largely due to the fact that these are all industries employing mainly women, doing a type of work that is usually seen as women’s work (even when people of other genders are doing it).

In our society women are often expected to clean, care and provide sexual services for free, often this is just seen as a natural expression of femininity rather than a form of work. When this work is done in return for a wage, this idea that it isn’t really proper work means that employers (whether they are the owners of big companies or an individual who employs cleaner or childminder) are often resentful about paying for it. There’s a circular logic here, whereby the low pay and low status of this work means that it continues to be mainly done by women (and especially migrant and BME women) with few other options. Historically, trade unions and Leftists have also failed to recognise domestic workers and sex workers as ‘proper’ workers, focusing instead on white male factory workers. And these women workers have often been left out of labour laws designed to protect wages and conditions.

The pandemic is therefore highlighting and compounding a much longer standing problem: the invisibility and marginalisation of women’s reproductive labour. It seems completely bizarre that the government has not included cleaners in its list of key workers, given the absolutely crucial role that cleaners, especially in public institutions, will be playing in fighting the virus. But I think that denying key worker status to cleaners is in fact just a particularly clear example of the way in which cleaning is ignored and devalued every day, in every aspect of our society.

Perhaps one of the silver linings of this awful situation, is that it has made much clearer exactly whose work really is essential to keeping society going. We are all dependent upon people supplying and cooking food, cleaning hospitals and public transport, looking after children and sick people. And I hope that this exceptional historical moment will be opportunity to get that message out loud and clear, not just to offer platitudes about how grateful we are but also to demand a massive increase in wages.

The pandemic has also meant that people (usually men) who would normally get someone else (usually a woman) to do their housework, cooking and childcare for them are suddenly having to experience what it is like to do this work themselves. I hope that the sudden realisation that this is skilled, difficult and tiring work will generate greater respect for the people who do it day in, day out.

I also hope that it prompts us to rethink even more fundamentally how work is shared out and our society is organised. Do we really want to live in a world where some people spend all day looking after children, and other people spend all day staring at a computer screen? Wouldn’t it be better if all of us had more time to do our own cooking, cleaning and caring, and all of us had the opportunity to do other types of work alongside it?