In our search for a sense of purpose in a COVID-19 world, one of our challenges is to face what we have allowed to crumble in better times. We have tolerated, if not allowed, care systems to exist and operate under conditions of inequality that are beyond redemption. As a result, enter the pandemic, they come crashing down, taking with them the essential services provided by thousands of low-paid care workers.
Caregivers working in daycares in Jordan will attest to this failure.
On March 17, as the entire country went on total lockdown, Jordan’s daycare centers – the vast majority of which are owned and operated by women – lost 100% of their enrollment and income in an instant.
Most caregivers have had their incomes – barely high enough to make a living to begin with – either slashed or completely stopped, and have suddenly found themselves without jobs or social protection.
The Jordanian government has implemented strict social distancing measures, with curfews and compulsory suspension of work both in the private and public sectors. As a result of this, it is foreseeable that industries like daycares, which depend on people gathering in groups, will be the last to return to business. This exacerbates the impact of these measures on workers in those sectors.
The circumstances are particularly dire for home-based daycares – a core pillar of support to working families in low-income neighborhoods. These daycares, which are often run by female-headed households, operate entirely in a gray area of the economy, as the law does not allow for their existence. They charge as little as EUR 1.30 per child per day. Due to COVID-19, these daycare operators are now left without an income.
As much as we want to blame the pandemic for wreaking havoc in this sector and others, we cannot disregard the fragile context in which it has been operating during years of de-prioritization, weak public policy, and scarce support by the government.
A nearly completely feminized industry, the childcare sector has always been riddled with structural issues and highly precarious working conditions. Caregivers, often even the daycare owners themselves, receive poverty wages just above the minimum wage (which currently stands at EUR 337 per month in Jordan), and are not subsidized by the government.
It would be easy to blame daycare owners for these conditions, as they are the employers. However, this is not a black and white situation. With no tax breaks or government incentives, daycare owners find themselves running on weak business models that guarantee only a fragile degree of sustainability, in order to be able to attract and retain a clientele of working families, which earn a national average of EUR 518 per parent per month.
As a result, fees are lower than they should be, employers evade paying social security contributions, and salaries are around or even below the minimum wage, which in no way reflects the value of the work that is actually performed. Caregivers in these establishments are left without contracts, without rights, and with no social or union protection – a recipe for disaster in a volatile situation such as the one we are in today.
Advocates and representatives of the childcare sector are sounding the alarm and calling for immediate intervention to cushion the blow that care workers and daycare owners are experiencing.
For example, since the forced closure of all economic activity, SADAQA, a women’s economic rights group, has been conducting country-wide listening campaigns and publishing position papers and media articles. The group has been advocating with government stakeholders on behalf of caregivers and daycare owners, demanding that they be included in emergency governmental response to prevent the sector and its workers from crashing. Furthermore, the group is lobbying the government to create fund to support the childcare sector during and after COVID-19.
The organization went on to launch an online platform – “Workers’ Voice” – in order to give care workers and others impacted by COVID-19 a platform to voice their concerns and demands. These demands are three-fold: The first is to create an immediate intervention package that includes subsidies for payrolls and cash assistance for caregivers as well as relief for daycare owners through deferral of loan payments and tax cuts. The second demand is to find a solution for the medium term by allowing the sector to resume operations under strict safety and social distancing measures. Finally, the organization demands a coherent policy for post-COVID-19 times, including regulation of the sector and structural changes to support and sustain it.
Community organizers will tell you that any disenfranchised group of people who come together to try and shift power structures must weave a common narrative. In a world ruled by COVID-19’s iron fist, disenfranchised citizens, globally and locally, have a historical opportunity to band together and demand to be heard and have their rights instated. It is possible that in a few years, underpaid caregivers in Jordan might realize that COVID-19 indeed was a turning point for a better future.
Sahar Aloul is a women’s rights activist and core team member of women’s economic rights group SADAQA. Prior to her work with SADAQA, Sahar has been a career journalist for 15 years.