Capitalists embraced the immediate solutions to the pandemic and among them the sacrifices expected from women to ensure the continuity of the cycles of capital accumulation. It is beneficial for them to further normalize those solutions.
The Covid-19 pandemic destabilized many of the assumptions about patriarchal capitalism. It revealed that the success story about market solutions being a remedy for gender inequality was not that successful after all. The lockdown has made clear which practices were essential for urban life and which were dispensable for businesses. During the lockdown, the essential yet often invisible work women performed at home became visible. The lockdown exposed gender inequalities even in those societies where the general opinion held that housework was shared equally between men and women and that there was no need for feminism to facilitate the organization of childcare. Paid jobs that were now carried out at home dismantled the public-private boundary and, together with it, the possibility for women to avoid the draining household chores while at work.
Together with the pandemic, we have been witnessing the expansion of the scale and layers of the capitalist mode of accumulation, including in the household. In some cities, the interruption of the social organization of care due to lockdown had an effect of a ‘general strike’ that made the everyday life very difficult to maintain. It is impossible to overlook how the dynamics of capitalist accumulation are shaped by the patriarchal social organization of space. There is a visible correlation between female unemployment and the decision by international corporate shareholders that paid jobs from now on are to be performed from home. An increasing number of paid jobs are performed by men. It is because many men have the capacity to invest their time in employment also when working from home. Women on the other hand, when asked to work from home, often move away from employment and become financially dependent on men because of the time the unpaid housework piled up on them occupies in their everyday lives. The sudden and sharp increase in cases of domestic violence worldwide is a clear indicator of this dependence. The fall in birthrates and the increase in divorce rates in some societies during the pandemic can be seen as an expression of women’s resistance to the worsening conditions of their everyday life. All in all, the current situation requires from us to find new and nuanced ways to struggle against patriarchal capitalism with the heteronormative family as its organizing principle.
Our lives differ based on ethnicity, class, citizenship, geographical location, and other markers that are intersecting gender. There are many faces of violence, exploitation, and oppression. At the same time there are struggles that serve as a source of hope. As women, we find ways of building solidarity and resistance inside the system of paid work that is gendered, racialized, and driven by power relations. We find strategies and take small but important steps to become agents in a system that is built to disadvantage us.
Variegations in work regimes
Recent research and data shows that the bulk of unpaid housework and care work is performed by women. It also indicates the increasing levels of female unemployment. Capitalists embraced the immediate solutions to the pandemic and among them the sacrifices expected from women to ensure the continuity of the cycles of capital accumulation. It is beneficial for them to further normalize those solutions. For example, those care tasks that were always treated by governments as a problem for the state budget, during the lockdown fell almost entirely on women during lockdown. In addition, parents had to spare their time to monitor children’s online education.
The variegated work regimes that became popular during the pandemic, and will certainly remain so after it, impose on people flexible work and work from home. For women who engage in piecework or do project-based remote work, the working time at home is organized in relation to the amount of everyday house and care work. Those who can afford outsourcing care and cleaning can purchase such services from the market. Yet, even in those cases, the responsibility for organizing the outsourcing lies with the women. Women’s employment in paid jobs is conditioned on their ability to make sure that housework and care work are taken care of, by themselves or by other women. Consequently, housework and care work lead women into poverty because they deprive women of the time that is necessary to invest in paid work. They result in the unequal remuneration of the work carried out by women and men.
Working from home blurs the boundary between paid and unpaid work, further reducing the possibility for women to address and recover their disadvantages as compared to men. Moreover, it encourages employers and managers to reach out to employees at random hours, disrespecting the hours of the regular workday. Often, women feel at the verge of burnout emotionally and physically.
Some of the paid jobs lead to insecure employment and unfavorable work conditions when performed from home. Home-based work, for example, widespread in the textile and metal sectors, turns homes into an invisible and non-contractual extension of factories. In white collar professions, homes become an extension of office spaces. These jobs not only keep women stuck at home but also leave them physically damaged, often permanently. Those who engage in home-based work are at the very end of the chain of exploitation, sometimes without even acknowledging themselves as rightful workers.
Those who cannot work from home
Paradoxically, working from home is also a sign of status for many women. Workplaces are often inconvenient and difficult to commute. In big cities, factories are far from residential areas and shopfloors are based in industrial zones. In such workplaces women are also more susceptible to mobbing and sexual harassment and subjected to gender-based oppression. Paying women’s wages to male members of the household and informal employment are common practices. It is not a coincidence that in times of economic crisis women are the first to be laid off. Women also grapple with body politics; they can lose their jobs if they get married or have children. Employers strictly regulate women’s rest breaks during work hours. Women bear various permanent physical damage because the machines and the equipment they work with are not designed accordingly to their physiology. They become unemployed when they can no longer afford commuting to work in faraway neighborhoods. In sectors such as health or education they face gendered oppression and barriers to advance in their careers.
Compared to men, women easily fall into unemployment because of sexist prejudice, unequal remuneration, or the inability to outsource housework and care work. They have lesser access to vocational training and professions. Women remain in the job market much less than men due to care responsibilities; according to the statistics provided by the Social Security Institution, the average number of years of paid, secure employment for women and men is 19 and 39, respectively. As a result, women have unequal access to retirement pension and benefits. When they retire, they take over care responsibilities of their grandchildren, often staying economically dependent on men in their families.
Various groups of people experience gender inequality. Disabled people encounter differential problems in the public sphere based on their gender. Sometimes they are kept at home and subjected to abuse. Women and LGBTI+ people face further discrimination when they are disabled as well as in old age.
LGBTI+ people encounter oppression to different degrees based on their class and ethnicity. Many of them pursue closeted professional and everyday lives. When they come out of the closet, they easily end up in sectors such as entertainment, performance arts, or sex work – sectors that are considered as ‘suitable’ for them – often under unfavorable work conditions and with no job security. Settling in expensive, middle-class neighborhoods for safety reasons, LGBTI+ people spend more money on housing and consumption than they can afford.
Migrant and refugee women not only receive racist and condescending treatment at work but are also pushed into jobs that require lesser skills and qualities than they have. Unable to mobilize citizenship and labor rights, they settle with low-paid, informal, insecure jobs.
Against the background of such intricate challenges, one must think in terms of concrete demands and solutions. Here are some propositions in that direction.
- Work from home should be regulated in the same way as other workplaces. Means of production should be provided by the employer and workers should have fixed work hours regardless of the workplace. Employers and their representatives should guarantee to not reach out to workers outside of work hours.
- Care work should be institutionalized through establishing childcare centers and care facilities for ill, elderly, and disabled people. These centers and facilities should offer quality service and foster solidaristic relations between people in local contexts. During the pandemic we have understood the importance of quality childcare for children to realize their right to education. Receiving quality care is a universal right. The lack of institutionalized care not only pulls women out of employment but also leaves people in need of care at the mercy of family members.
- Much research conducted during the pandemic showed that in many parts of the world being physically alone produces feelings that are difficult to cope especially in women. Perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink the previously ignored demand of women who perform home-based work to have communal spaces for work. Non-profit, collective spaces should be available for women to relocate their home-based work outside of home.
- The expenses that capitalists save on by relocating the work outside of the office or the production site motivate them to make the system of remote work permanent. Given that some workers indeed prefer to work from home, the cost of many items (e.g. internet, gas, electricity) should be added to the salary of the worker who otherwise pay for those expenses from their own pocket. In the long run, workers should demand for the state to provide those items universally and for free. For example, during the pandemic we realized that access to internet is a human right for homeschooling children. Why not, then, formulate access to fast, secure, and free internet as a universal demand?
- Production sites are increasingly moving away from city centers. The rising rent rpices in central neighborhoods pushes not only production sites but also many service sector businesses to the margins of urban spaces. The longer it takes for women to commute to work, the more women become discouraged to seek jobs. The costs of as well as the risks involved in transportation, combined with the time that goes to housework and care work, can make having a job unaffordable. As a result, women might end up working in shopping malls or gastronomy- and tourism-oriented businesses. To reverse this trend, the employer should be responsible for organizing safe transportation to the workplace.
- It is time for labor unions and other workers’ organizations to address seriously and wholeheartedly the issues of gender-based prejudices, unequal division of labor, and unequal remuneration. Gender-based hierarchies and privileges can no longer be ignored in working class demands. Addressing openly the gender-based mobbing and oppression that women and LGBTI+ people encounter in labor organizations would strengthen, and by no means divide, the class struggle.
- The poverty of retired people, especially of retired women, is a crucial issue that needs more visibility in today’s labor struggles. Since women’s career paths are defined by the unpaid housework and care work they perform at home, the right to retirement pension should be formulated as a demand regardless of whether one is engaged in paid or unpaid work.
- Disabilities are aggravated by the way everyday life is organized in society. It is possible to alleviate the problems of disabled people by reorganizing urban spaces towards accommodating differential physical needs. To make visible the class struggles of disabled people, we need to rethink urban spaces and systems of production. Labor organizations must include gendered disabilities in their agendas without further delay.
- Whether they are out or in the closet, LGBTI+ people face myriad of oppression and discrimination at the workplace. Their experiences differ based on religion, ethnicity, skin color, and level of income. Regardless of those differences, they must be acknowledged as legitimate and equal actors in class struggle. Class demands should include specific measures to ensure that gender identity and sexual orientation are not a basis for discrimination and exclusion in educational and work life and should aim to abolish all heteronormative impositions and pressures that make our lives unlivable.
- Refugees have specific problems due to their legal status. They are void of citizenship privileges or the safety of having somewhere to return to like voluntary migrants. The legal and economic constraints they experience keep them in-between a devalued past and a new life. The trivialization of their past skills and experiences and the temporariness of their settlement push them into the lowest strata of the working class regardless of their age. Being strangers in everyday encounters and having language barrier, refugees are moreover infantilized by host societies. As a result, they are excluded from acts of class solidarity even though they face the worst kinds of employer despotism. Yet, the competition between different sections of the working class (e.g. citizens – migrants, Turks – Kurds) always benefits the employer and weakens the class struggle. It is crucial for labor struggles to develop organizational perspectives where working class solidarity goes beyond citizenship status and where refugees can access the same economic and labor rights as citizens. Simple steps can make all the difference: For example, publishing and disseminating among refugees, especially among refugee women, informational and support brochures in languages they can speak and understand.
These propositions emerge out of everyday life experiences and political encounters. They call for making room for more of such encounters. To maintain and protect our lives, we must intervene in times, spaces, and the everyday enabled by our shared conditions and struggles. I end this article with the hope that it will contribute to expanding the possibilities in joint political action.
Translator: Selin Çağatay