BUSANI NGCAWENI: The injustice of COVID-19 for women in the workplace


The coronavirus pandemic represents a major reversal of women’s reproductive rights in the world of work. As struggles to challenge all forms of gender-based violence on the shop-floor were gaining momentum, a deadly virus came with major disruptive effects.

For decades we have witnessed women’s reproductive rights being undermined by chauvinist workplace rules that forbid breastfeeding at work, make no arrangements for breastfeeding mothers to express and safely store the milk, impose draconian rules on those who need to work flexible hours in order to care for minor children, limited child care facilities in the workplace, and the story goes on.

I have been told by a number of women that they will never apply for senior management jobs because that will affect their family lives and take them away from their children in particular.

In government there are widespread anecdotes that “if you become a DDG or a Head of Department, you might as well file for divorce or disown your children because you will hardly be at home and when you return home, you don’t want to be talking to anybody after being bullied by managers and politicians”.

Combined with many other systemic problems that undermine the advancement of women into top management positions across all sectors of the economy, the politicisation of leadership positions and their disruptive effects on family life perpetuate emotional and financial violence against women.

The latter has made me think: it is truly rare to see a pregnant head of department, dean of faculty, CFO or chief executive, even among those of reproductive age. Many “choose” careers and sacrifice reproduction due to the uncertainty of safeguarding one’s job during pregnancy.

How can I forget. A big company called Standard Bank retrenched my partner while she was on maternity leave. She was spared the pain of this illegality by getting a job offer a week later - two months before her leave ended. I have no doubt that a clear message was sent to her colleagues - you dare not go on maternity leave during restructuring!

Even as the most junior employees exercise their reproductive rights, it is under extreme conditions as outlined above - the workplace is a theatre of patriarchy with its unforgiving twin, capitalism.

Those (pregnant women or those with minor children) who use public transport, which is the overwhelming majority of female workers worldwide, their situation is worse. In the streets of South Africa, your child must dare cry for breast milk whilst in transit to the clinic. You become a spectacle as you will not risk breastfeeding in public lest you invite bullying and ridicule.

The less said about childcare struggles the better (the migrant labour system is a historical injustice against black women as family support for young mothers is almost non-existent).

And then came COVID-19.

For those women who are essential services workers, imagine their difficult working conditions: early childhood development facilities are closed, they can’t take children to work, access to family planning and contraceptives is severely limited, only live-in helpers are back at work.

As if that is not enough, those participating in marathon virtual meetings are in a worse position: they face prejudice from other meeting participants when their children run around making noise or seek their mothers’ attention whilst Teams and Zoom meetings are on. And they are expected to dress up.

Yet men attend same meetings wearing boxer shorts with wine glasses in clear sight; and I am one of them.

It gets worse: women with much older children show little empathy for their counterparts of reproductive age. They are seen as being disorganised when children interrupt them, or if they become unavailable due to childcare demand; that is my subjective observation.

Having witnessed these struggles at home, at work and amongst my female friends, it appears that the struggle for reproductive rights in the workplace is taking a knock in the era of COVID-19.

Wait for this: capitalism is about to unleash the harshest blow against women as economies collapse, factories close, livelihoods lost forever. Many girls will drop out of school, get pregnant and in parts of the world, they will be forced into sex work, risking their bodies and their futures.

And what about the intrusion into the lives of domestic workers. As they return to work, they are subjected to tests that we don’t take ourselves, in the name of “protecting the family”. Who protects them against infection from those of us who move around in shopping areas and other places with highly mobile people who are at a greater risk of contracting the virus? I guess we all know that they have no voice, no alternatives, so they must get tested as a precondition for return to work.

Remember our mothers went through the same at the rise of HIV, they were suspects, so the bosses had them tested even if it meant invading their privacy.

As partners, bosses and colleagues, we need to take a step back and think hard about our contribution to the injustices that women face in society today.

We need to conscientiously and actively take measures to reorganise the shop-floor and labour relations in general such that women are liberated from the clutches of violence they experience every day - from ensuring equal pay for equal work, providing adequate personal protective equipment, to guaranteeing women’s reproductive rights. We need to show more empathy and invest in concrete support systems for mothers and women in general to remain productive under these difficult times.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni