After over a year of suffering, death, and profound transformations of everyday life, International Women’s Day 2021 is an opportunity to take stock of the COVID-19 crisis so far and craft visions for a future centred on the value of social reproduction. In our article ‘Hidden Abodes in Plain Sight’ recently published in the special issue on Gendered Perspectives on COVID-19 in Feminist Economics, a social reproduction lens is used to analyse the COVID-19 crisis.
What is social reproduction? Social reproduction is ‘the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life’, as well as ‘a set of structured practices’ – as vividly put by Cindi Katz – that are needed for the reproduction of both life and capitalist relations. In other words, it encompasses all the work, unpaid and paid, and the socio-cultural practices, institutions, and sectors that are essential for the regeneration of our lives and society. As such, it speaks about the organisation of work both within and outside households. This is a key vantage point, we argue, to explore the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
In fact, this crisis is fundamentally different from previous ones exactly because it shakes the foundational elements of our economies and societies: the organization of work, in its multiple forms. To fully analyse this process, we need to consider the interplay between reproductive and productive work, explore the effects of the crisis in the world of work, and map the interconnections with the reorganization of the role of the household within it.
Notably, the tragic outcomes of the crisis should be understood as also dictated by the greatly damaging effects of decades of neoliberalization, austerity, and privatization of social reproduction, which as argued by Nancy Fraser, have produced a chronic crisis of care across the world economy. Households have been subject to a double squeeze. They have socialised this chronic crisis of care, while also being hit by declining income shares from paid employment. During the same period, in fact, labour markets experienced the feminization and informalisation of employment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already critical situation in terms of socioeconomic inequality and the squeeze on social reproduction across the globe. However, the crisis may also lay the foundations for a rediscovered appreciation of the significance of social reproduction.
A social reproduction perspective draws attention to two key transformations triggered by the COVID-19 crisis. First, the intensification of social reproduction work taken up by households and the differential impact of this depending on the nature and makeup of the household and the material differences driven by socioeconomic status and relations.
Although, in theory, lockdown policies have been indiscriminate in bringing care and social reproduction work back into the home, in reality the impacts have been uneven and shaped by: i) patterns of renegotiation of reproductive work within the home, between women and men for example, ii) the presence of children, elderly and ill people to care for, iii) differences in household assets and living conditions and, iv) the occupations of household members.
A second key transformation has been the shift in the balance between sectors of the economy deemed as low-skilled and low-value producing and those typically considered to be high-skilled and high-value producing, where the former tend to see a concentration of women, migrants, and ethnic minorities. On the one hand, those who continue to work outside the home are exposed to serious health risks. On the other hand, these workers have had to be recognized as essential.
It is clear that the most vulnerable workers at the origins of global supply chains, severely disrupted during the pandemic, and in the informal economy in the Global South have been hit hardest. Unequal impacts have been shaped by i) occupational segregation, ii) power relations in global supply chains, iii) migration and, iv) access to social protection.
This COVID-19 moment invites us to take stock and change course, placing social reproduction at the heart of this new direction. By organizing a collective response, we, as society, need to claim the place that essential workers occupy in social reproduction, not only by replacing the rhetoric of “unskilled labour” with a more dignifying classification of “key worker,” but also by putting forward the material and political claims attached to it, which entail pay rises, social protection, pensions, extended sick leave, parental leave, and indefinite citizenship rights for migrants.
In addition, in the immediate term, we need some form of income guarantee or basic income for all, especially migrants and informal workers in the Global South. However, to address gender, race and class inequalities, we also need a decommodified system of basic services provision that bypasses the market ideology that created the conditions for the disadvantaged and disempowered to face barriers to access these services in the first place.
The budget just announced by the UK Conservative government does not go in this direction, quite the opposite in fact. Austerity cannot come back; this is the time to end the narrative of ‘household budget’ and myopic fiscal fundamentalism. We need public investment on health, education, local government and public services for a care-led economy that works in the interest of the most vulnerable.
As our article shows, feminist perspectives are necessary to understand and respond to the COVID-19 crisis, more than ever before. To read further, have a look at the newly published double issue in Feminist Economics edited by Naila Kabeer, Shahra Razavi and Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, which includes 27 papers that will be free access until 31st July 2021.