In this rough monetary moment, the conversations we have about the economy are more important than ever. We could focus on issues of debt to GDP ratios. The debt-to-GDP ratio is over 60 per cent for 12 of 20 Caribbean countries, over 80 per cent for 6 countries, and over 100 per cent for four. Indeed it’s the pressure of debt payments that prevents Caribbean countries from affording development projects and social programmes.
We could focus on the importance of investment to economic growth. Investment provides funds needed by industries to provide jobs, create wealth and pay taxes. But we are at risk of invisibilising other indicators if we mainly focus on these. When countries focus on debt reduction, who carries the costs and how are those measured? When we rely on profit-seeking investment to drive economic growth, what might we fail to discuss in terms of environmental, labour, health and other costs?
Looking at women’s experiences in the labour market can show what such indicators hide. From this perspective, the global and national economy is fundamentally gendered, meaning that the roles that women play in both private and public spheres aren’t incidental, but central to how the economy is organized and experienced. For example, women often devise survival strategies for their families using their unpaid time and labour to absorb the effects of economic crises, such as industry shrinkage, or higher food prices, or prescriptions for debt reduction.
More than men, women perform uncounted, non-unionised and unwaged homebased labour, and have greater responsibility for care of children, and the disabled and elderly, particularly where health and social services are inadequate. Such economic exploitation within households reinforces women’s exploitation in the waged economy, where women predominate in the five Cs: caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. Particularly when traditionally male-dominated jobs are being lost, these women are more vulnerable to poverty and relationship violence because of their economic dependence.
When women take work to make ends meet, they may experience the absence of a social infrastructure permitting them to combine work with family life. Additionally, women’s clustering in service sectors, and informal jobs, that are often considered less skilled or valuable than hitting a ball with a bat, is highly exploitative and features low wages, poor working conditions, and little opportunity for security or advancement. In this context, economic problems and prescriptions are likely to have an asymmetrical impact on women and men because they have different relationships to labour in informal and formal spheres, and in reproduction and production.
Reflecting on this, Caribbean feminist Eudine Barriteau writes, “Constructing economic analyses around households should force development planners to move beyond exploiting the resources of women to costing out the use of these resources. It should no longer be possible to speak of market gains while households are suffering, of growth without equity or redistribution.” Making households the basic unit of socioeconomic analysis, she argues, should make planners directly confront the gendered nature of economic relations, disaggregating and exposing the conflicts and competing interests within households, and between household roles and market-based economic behavior.
In our economy, in the category of those 25 to 49 years old, men comprise about 57% of the labour force, women 43%. Within this age group, women’s labour force participation rate is 72% compared to 95% for men. Men’s unemployment is 2% for that age category, but women’s is 4%, and more women than men (28% versus 6%) are considered to be out of the labour force between the ages of 25-49. Why and with what implications for their labour?
In the petro/gas industries, men comprise 80% of those employed, women 20%. In the construction sector, men constitute 88% of those employed, women 12%. Finally, in community, social and personal services, as well as in trade, restaurants and hotels, women are 54% and 58% respectively of those employed in comparison to 42% and 46% of men. And, this labour force data for 2015 doesn’t adequately highlight women’s pervasive wage inequality for similar work.
The costs of recession and growth are being survived and subsidized by households, and by labour inequities being borne by women. In addition to indicators of investment and debt, this is something economists should be discussing.