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OP-ED: How women have kept their jobs in the Gulf economy

  • Published at 01:25 am October 22nd, 2020
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The unique labour market structures of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain may be the reason

In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, female citizens have kept their jobs amid the coronavirus at higher rates than in Western countries. This reflects the unique labour market structures of the Gulf countries, where female migrant workers have taken a disproportionate hit.

In the Gulf, the public sector’s dominance in hiring citizens and the openness of the labour market to migrant workers combine to create circumstances that are favourable to female employment among nationals.

In the case studies of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, these dynamics have meant the coronavirus pandemic caused a higher rise in male unemployment than female -- in contrast to Western countries, where women have lost their jobs at a higher rate.

In Saudi Arabia, male unemployment increase 2.1% (from 6 to 8.1%) during the second quarter of 2020 (compared to the same quarter in 2019), whereas female unemployment only increased 0.1% (from 31.1 to 31.4%). In contrast, the US reported a higher rise in female unemployment during February-April 2020: An increase of 13%, compared to 10% in male unemployment.

Bahrain lacks the data for a direct comparison, but a recently published socioeconomic impact analysis conducted by Derasat and UNDP Bahrain contains instructive data: A nationally representative survey of Bahrainis found that 70.7% of men had a job before the pandemic versus 66.1% after it, while the corresponding figures for women were 55.9% and 52.3%. As with Saudi Arabia, this indicates that the pandemic has had a greater hit on the male labour market.

In the case of the US and other Western countries, the unfavourable impact on women has been attributed to two primary causes.

First, women are overrepresented in sectors with face-to-face contact, such as personal services and retail, and these are the sectors that are worst hit by the pandemic. Second, cultural stereotypes have led to expectations that women perform a higher share of household chores, homeschooling, childcare, and caring for the elderly in the same household, making it harder for women to maintain job performance at pre-pandemic levels.

In the Gulf countries, for citizens, these channels are either absent or apply in a different way. First, in contrast to their American counterparts, female nationals in countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not overrepresented in face-to-face contact sectors; instead, they are overrepresented in the white collar jobs of the public sector, where redundancy is virtually impossible, and where the work itself is highly suitable for remote delivery.

Unfortunately for female migrant workers, because citizens are overrepresented in white collar jobs, migrant workers are overrepresented in vulnerable face-to-face jobs such as beauticians, salespersons, and waitresses. Data limitations mean that it is hard to get a precise impression of the impact of Covid-19 on the employment of female migrant workers in the Gulf countries. However, the large numbers of expatriate departures, such as 300,000 or more in Saudi Arabia since the start of 2020, suggest a large effect.

The second reason why female Gulf citizens have fared relatively well economically is that while many of the cultural stereotypes regarding women doing household chores and providing childcare are present (and arguably accentuated) in the Gulf countries, their impact is reduced by the ability to hire expatriate domestic helpers for low wages. Tens of thousands of female migrant workers from countries such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines earn a living in the Gulf countries by providing cleaning, cooking, and childcare services in households, at extremely low hourly rates when compared to the market rate for such services in Western countries. 

This is an important enabling factor in female labour force participation at all times, and especially so during a pandemic that features stay-at-home orders and other forms of strict social distancing.

Notably, in the case of Bahrain, a royal decree issued in March required employers to give female workers with school-aged children the priority in remote work rotas, and this likely provided extra job-security for female citizens in Bahrain, without necessarily decreasing the total number of hours that women work when childcare and homeschooling are included.

Unlike the first explanation for why female Bahrainis have done relatively well employment-wise, there are no “losers” in this second explanation. In fact, given the economic devastation experienced in many countries that supply female domestic helpers to the Gulf countries, it is likely that the remittance income they generate was even more important than it usually is, with their spouses having jobs that are far less recession proof.

However, this is only a partial picture of the welfare of the female migrant workers; a comprehensive analysis would involve assessing if these women have been subjected to higher-than-usual levels of abuse or exploitation due to the lockdowns. Measuring the incidence of crimes such as domestic violence is incredibly difficult everywhere in the world, but the limited data available indicate a clear rise in such abuses as a direct consequence of lockdowns in countries such as the US. 

While unemployment data provides some insight into how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped the world, ultimately its full impact can only be understood by taking a holistic approach.

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain. This article first appeared on Al Arabiya News and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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