Workers in the grading hall of the Fairtrade-certified Harvest Limited Athi River flower farm in Kenya. Kenya’s flower sector, with its predominantly female workforce, has been hard hit during the pandemic. Photo: © Nathalie Bertrams

Covid: no ‘great leveller’ when it comes to women workers’ rights

By Alice Lucas, Policy and Advocacy Manager The Fairtrade Foundation

As we mark this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, measures to tackle COVID-19 continue to exacerbate gender inequality worldwide. If we truly want to build back fairer, then businesses, civil society and governments must put women’s rights squarely at the centre of post-pandemic recovery plans, says the Fairtrade Foundation’s Alice Lucas.

Measures to tackle COVID-19 have exacerbated gender inequality across the globe. That’s the damning verdict of a recent report from the UN Foundation, which highlights the pandemic’s impact on women and girls everywhere.

As we mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, it is an opportune time to remember that while we have all been deeply affected by COVID-19, women in the global South are currently facing heightened risks of abuse and discrimination, as pre-existing structures calcify and job losses accumulate in the face of widespread economic downturns in developing countries.

Research has shown that women in the global South are particularly likely to face a higher risk of human rights violations during the pandemic. What’s more, school closures mean they are more likely to be expected to take on extra childcare responsibilities and unpaid labour, affecting their ability to earn a decent livelihood. Many women in the agricultural sector already earn well below men and are therefore likely to feel the impacts of job losses more severely. The pandemic is simply exacerbating this inequality.

For example, in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire the average cocoa farmer earns just 75p a day – however women farmers are far worse off than men, working longer hours and working for lower pay. It is estimated that in Côte D’Ivoire, women do over two thirds of the labour involved in cocoa farming, but earn just 21% of the income generated. Just a quarter of women cocoa farmers own their own land. As the pandemic continues to take an economic toll on communities, women are therefore less likely to have the resources or resilience to withstand any potential loss of livelihood.

The flower industry is another area where COVID-19’s gendered impacts are evident. East African flower sales have been hit hard since the pandemic began, with the Kenya Flower Council estimating that it will take a year for the sector to recover. In Kenya, women make up the majority of flower workers: as Fairtrade Foundation has previously reported, the closure of childcare facilities due to COVID has made life very difficult for many women, who are overwhelmingly responsible for caregiving. Finding a workable solution while holding on to a job is challenging in any context, and we have heard how some women have been forced to take sick leave to care for children at home. Many can ill-afford it, with no social safety net to fall back on.

The resilience that many Fairtrade supply chains have shown throughout the pandemic reveals some important lessons for building back fairer from the crisis, which may enable us not only to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on women, but also to lay the foundations for greater gender equality for the future.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been seeing evidence that sustainable supply chains are more robust in the face of the crisis. For example, Fairtrade farmers and workers were able to introduce health and social protection initiatives, and implement worker protection and furlough measures, through the Fairtrade Producer Relief Fund as well as the Fairtrade Premium (an additional sum of money that workers invest in projects of their choice).

This adds evidence to the business case (not to mention the moral case) for measures such as the payment of living incomes and living wages to farmers and workers, for investment in environmental sustainability measures and human rights standards. In particular, women who earn a living income are more likely to be financially independent and better able to pay childcare costs (which often falls to them) – and thus are empowered to pursue leadership positions within their communities.

Business has an important role to play here. Alongside working towards living wages, fair purchasing practices are vital to ensuring that women receive a decent wage for their work. Also key is the push for Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence (HREDD) legislation, which would require businesses to identify, assess and mitigate human rights violations in their supply chains, including the violation of women’s rights. (Fairtrade has recently set out its support for HREDD legislation.)

The Fairtrade system empowers women farmers and workers through our standards and programmes work. We are committed to continuing to support women producers towards true gender equality as we rebuild from the pandemic, so they can rise up, lead in their sectors and fulfil their potential. Alongside governments, businesses can play a critical role during this period by committing to pay living incomes: a vital step towards achieving gender equality in our international food supply chains.

As we seek to build back fairer from the coronavirus crisis, one thing is clear: businesses, civil society and governments must put women’s rights squarely at the centre. Gender justice must be at the heart of our post-pandemic world, if we are truly committed to leaving no woman behind.

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