This blog, authored in partnership with Yap Lay Sheng, Women's Aid Organisation (WAO), is part of UNDP Malaysia's Kisah series, which explores COVID-19 impacts through the dual lens of conversation partners at the front lines, and through UNDP’s programmes and priorities. ('Kisah' is a Malay word that means ‘story’ and ‘to care, to take interest’.) To participate in Kisah, or to find out more, email the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 warns that COVID is more than just a health crisis. The pandemic has exposed many societal shortcomings, especially inequalities, and is likely to increase poverty at a global scale. One of the major issues, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, is the disproportionate increase in burden of caregiving by women. To tackle this issue, UNDP strongly supports the need for gender-sensitive preparedness and policy responses not only to reduce the burden on women, but also improve the effectiveness of any government interventions in this regard.
In Malaysia, the return to normal for the workforce will be experienced abnormally by many primary caregivers. As work-from-home (WFH) arrangements have been mandated for non-essential workers and schools have remained closed since the Movement Control Order (MCO) was enforced in mid-March, many caregivers have found themselves simultaneously shouldering additional domestic work on top of their professional responsibilities.
Moreover, with more children going online for their classes and other activities online, the burden falls more on mother than the father on monitoring their digital activity, from monitoring their screen-time to sharing information online. This expansion of many children’s digital footprint online during the pandemic has created the need for a “third shift” for working parents monitoring children’s online identities—in addition to what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has termed the “first shift” of paid work and the “second shift” of homemaking work. An underfunded care infrastructure in Malaysia, which relies heavily on the informal labour of female caregivers, has never been subjected to so much strain.
In four charts, this blog discusses emerging trends on hours spent on unpaid care and domestic work, size of formal care economy and how younger women are settling for more flexible but less secure work. Don’t take our word for it, let the numbers speak for themselves!
On average, women in Malaysia spend more hours than men on unpaid care and domestic work
Time-use split of men and women in a day (total 24 hours)
Even before the crisis, women in Malaysia were already carrying out more hours of unpaid care and domestic work. A small sample study of 125 individuals in Kuala Lumpur by Khazanah Research Institute found that women are, on average, putting in 1.4 hours more of unpaid homemaking work per day compared to men. According to the World Bank, in 2018, 60% of Malaysian women who did not participate in labour force cited housework as their main reason for not seeking work. The pandemic will only worsen this distribution as more people stay in their homes and caregiving demands increase.
UNDP Malaysia COVID-19 Work From Home Survey’s preliminary report found that, overall, WFH options made caregiving easier. But women were more likely than men to report increased difficulty of caregiving (32% vs. 20%) due to working from home, and this was still higher among women of age group 35-44.
Long care hours over the long term is associated with aggravated levels of psychological distress amongst caregivers. In the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019, 16% of informal caregivers have reported elevated stress levels. With secondary healthcare services disrupted by resource diversion during the pandemic, women shouldering the additional care burden will be particularly hard-pressed when it comes to seeking psychosocial support.
Malaysia’s formal care economy remains small
Care work often occurs across a spectrum of formal and informal settings. Health and social services, such as childcare, early childhood education programmes, palliative and elderly care, are forms of paid care work. Although unpaid care can be substituted with these paid services, thereby relieving the burden on unpaid caregivers, many families may refrain from doing so due to the lack of affordable and quality services.
In Malaysia, social care workers who are non-clinical workers comprise a small percentage of the overall health and social services sector, pointing to the huge gap in provision of care work services in the formal public health system. The number of social care workers (including residential, home and community care workers) has remained very small, never exceeding one-fifths of total employment in the sector over the past decade.
This contrasts with other countries such as Germany where social care workers comprise 41.2% of total employment in the health and social services sector. Evidently, this stark difference arises because most care work remains informal and unpaid in Malaysia. Critical public investment in the formal care economy is needed to reduce the burden of unpaid domestic care work.
An unprecedented number of working-age adults are exiting the workforce
In the long term, how care is distributed within the household has a far-reaching impact on women’s economic participation in the world of income-generating activities. A prolonged family crisis will often force women to give up paid employment as they struggle to juggle work and care responsibilities. The Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM)’s Quarterly Labour Force Statistics for Q1 2020 reinforces this point. We are witnessing the highest number of persons leaving the labour force in recent times (highlighted by the orange trend line). In the same period, most persons leaving the labour force have cited “housework/family” as the primary motivation (in red trend line). This could be due to the extra care burden that women in Malaysia have disproportionately incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, but further research is needed to establish cause and effect.
Younger women in Malaysia are increasingly opting for less secure, but more flexible, work
According to figures by DOSM, over the last six years there has been a sharp increase in self-employment status among women between the ages of 15 and 29. While women who enter these occupations may value the greater flexibility they offer—enabling them to cope with the double burden of (unpaid) caregiving and paid work—they sacrifice the social protection that comes with traditional employment. The extended period of social and physical distancing in post-MCO Malaysia will likely further accelerate the pace of deregulation of women’s employment.
Good public policies can recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work
The pandemic is an opportune moment for us to reflect on the different working realities for men and women in Malaysia, as well as the care crisis experienced by many households. Care labour, especially informal care work, has traditionally been undervalued as a fundamental service for the productive economy. Public policies can help redistribute the care labour disproportionately carried out by women in Malaysia. Some simple recommendations include:
- Changing employment practices, such as enabling flexible working arrangements for workers where possible.
- Initiating steps to improve employers’ family-friendly facilities.
- Making compulsory the provision of paternity leave in the private sector, with a view towards increasing it in the future (for instance, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries such as Sweden have compulsory paternity leave, equaling that of maternity leave).
- Stepping up social protection measures for primary caregivers, by dispensing care grants and gender-sensitive cash transfer programmes in subsequent rounds of the stimulus package, as well as enforcing workers’ rights in cases of unfair workplace dismissals due to increased care work taken up by workers. A strong employment recovery after the crisis can only be achieved if we alleviate the care burdens of our workers.
- Continuing to put in place tax incentives and subsidies to grow the formal social care sector.
Unpaid care work across the world is dominated by women—even in more developed countries. We must go beyond redistribution of unpaid care work, to ensuring flexible work arrangements and affordable care support are available, in order to alleviate the burden of unpaid care as experienced by women. Policies should be designed in a way that accounts for how unpaid care work affects both men and women, and put measures in place to ensure that men are allowed time to spend on unpaid care work (mandatory paid paternal leave, for instance). In this regard, UNDP is currently investigating the potential of technological advances to reduce the unpaid care burden among women and exploring multiple avenues of cooperation with Malaysia’s Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in Malaysia.
The authors would like to thank Jun Jabar, Programme Analyst, and Tan Siew Mann, Project Manager, of UNDP Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam for input and comments.
About this blog's co-author
About this blog's conversation partner
Since 1982, Women’s Aid Organisation has provided free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. We help women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities. Learning from women’s experiences, we advocate to improve public policies and shift public mindsets. Together, we change lives.
This blog contains information and perspectives of the individual authors and does not indicate any formal endorsement by UNDP Malaysia or the conversation partner’s organisation, nor does it indicate provision of any technical support in their implementation. UNDP Malaysia is not responsible for content provided in any of the external sites linked to this article. This is purely for informational purposes only.