Only a non-discriminatory, gender-inclusive stimulus package will allow our society to emerge intact, perhaps even stronger, from this crisis, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) says.
Many women will fall through the cracks of the recently announced stimulus package, which fails to account for those most exposed to the fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak.
The scope of the stimulus package must be widened to meet the needs of those individuals most susceptible to losing their livelihoods, including female-headed households, domestic violence survivors, women workers in vulnerable employment, and at-risk non-citizens living in Malaysia.
Existing programmes either exclude altogether these segments of society, or are poorly calibrated to meet the specific needs of these groups. We are living through extraordinary times, and this demands a divergence from the status quo. We call for the government to finetune its policies to address the following areas of concern:
- Extend the wage subsidies programme to women in vulnerable employment
- Ensure the poor, especially at-risk women, have access to cash transfers if they don’t qualify for the Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (National Caring Assistance) programme
- Provide additional relief so that withdrawals from Employees Provident Fund savings, which cover a narrow working population and are lower for women workers, are used only as a last resort
- Ensure access to relief for non-citizens in need, including foreign wives who are domestic violence survivors
- Encourage the private sector to fund these initiatives
- Design a social safety net that empowers at-risk women
The government must extend the wage subsidies programme to women in vulnerable employment
The most critical component of the Prihatin package for workers is the wage subsidy policy. For firms suffering a loss of more than 50% in income, the government will subsidise a monthly wage of RM600 per employee whose earnings are below RM4,000.
This wage subsidy policy narrowly targets workers in formal employment, ignoring a substantial segment of individuals in vulnerable employment, including the self-employed, informal workers, and unpaid family workers, who are disproportionately women.
Over one-fourth of working women – 25.9% – fall under this category of vulnerable employment, as compared to the 20.9% of the male labour force that comprises this category. The effects of the discrepancy in the types of work undertaken by men and women can be seen more starkly during crises such as the current pandemic.
The penalisation of women in vulnerable employment is even more evident in light of the proposal to provide RM500 transfers to 120,000 e-hailing drivers, who are predominantly self-employed men. By contrast, transfers to other affected self-employed individuals, such as cleaners or those providing childcare or catering services on a freelance basis – who tend to be women – are not accounted for under the stimulus package.
Policymakers need to recognise that these socioeconomic effects also intersect with other forms of vulnerabilities. For a single female-headed household, a loss in self-employment income spells disaster for the entire household, including children. For domestic violence survivors, an income loss will leave them totally dependent on the abuser in households already suffering from stark gender inequalities.
The government must ensure the poor, especially women at risk, have access to cash transfers if they don’t qualify for the BPN programme
A recent poll of 20 former residents of WAO’s shelter found that 70% of the women have suffered a loss of income during the movement control order, with 30% experiencing a complete loss of income. Overall, Malaysian women are more likely to be unemployed than men, and the current crisis will exacerbate the gap.
Despite this, many of these women will not have access to the proposed BPN cash transfers for the bottom 40% and middle 40% of households. For the bottom 40% already covered by the Bantuan Sara Hidup (Cost of Living Assistance) programme, the cash transfers will be directly transferred into a representative’s bank account, usually the male head of household. The same applies to the middle 40% of households whose bank accounts are registered with the Inland Revenue Board.
Direct transfers to the male head of household will greatly disadvantage domestic violence survivors; for example, survivors who are in the process of obtaining a divorce from their abusive husband and who cannot yet classify themselves as single will not receive anything.
Similarly, many women still living in abusive situations and who lack access to joint financial resources will not receive the benefit of a direct transfer made to their husbands’ bank accounts; this is particularly troublesome during the movement control order period, when women and children are trapped at home with abusers and may not have the economic independence needed to leave.
To ensure that the cash transfer programme reaches those most in need – including female heads of household, domestic violence survivors, and women in poor and rural households – we recommend that the government expands access to these transfers in a number of ways, including by allowing women who would otherwise be ineligible to apply for the benefit outside of existing programmes with a supporting letter from a gazetted shelter or other designated organisation.
Additionally, we implore the government to implement other measures to ensure benefits are accessible to women in need – such as designing the application process to make it clear to applicants that either adult qualifies as the household representative – to improve the financial access to women most in need.
The government must ensure it is providing adequate relief so that withdrawals from EPF savings, which cover a narrow working population and are lower for women, are used only as a last resort
Under the I-Lestari programme, EPF contributors (the majority of which are formally employed workers) are allowed to withdraw up to RM500 from Account 2 for the next 12 months, amounting to RM6,000 in total.
However, the WAO is concerned that only a very small working population qualifies under this policy, comprising 4.9 million active male EPF contributors and even more narrowly, 3.3 million active female EPF contributors. Together, this covers only 54% of our labour force, leaving a sizeable minority behind.
In terms of total savings, 26.5% of these active female contributors and 25.0% of the male contributors have less than RM10,000 in their EPF accounts. As this lower-income group is most likely to rely on i-Lestari, a withdrawal of RM6,000 effectively depletes 60% of all pension savings for a quarter of all active EPF contributors.
Given the reality of the i-Lestari’s limited coverage, and already tightened household financial conditions, the WAO would like to emphasise that adequate alternative relief must be provided so that individuals currently facing income reduction or instability – especially female heads of household, domestic violence survivors, and other groups of the working population – are not forced to deplete what already may be a low level of EPF savings.
The government must ensure access to relief for non-citizens in need, including foreign wives who are domestic violence survivors
Currently, the relief measures in the government’s stimulus package are available only to Malaysians. The government must make some provisions for non-citizens in need, such as the foreign wives of Malaysian men who are domestic violence survivors. Such an individuals – despite in some cases having been in the country for many years and having Malaysian children- – would not be entitled to direct payments.
Similarly, women foreign workers may be facing disruption or uncertainty in their employment and may additionally face higher risks of abuse, without having any access to economic relief that could be critical for them.
The government should supplement the existing stimulus measures with additional relief for foreign citizens in need, which could be administered through designated organisations.
WAO more than willing to play our part
Apart from continuing to care for women in need, the WAO is also looking to introduce a level-up programme, which measures and improves gender equality in organisations. We aim to roll this out to government-linked companies and corporates, which will pay a fee out of their training budget. All fees earned will go towards strengthening our programmes to support women and children in need.
Private sector to partially fund these initiatives
Apart from using the resources available to the government, another channel that should be tapped is the private sector. There are organisations which are flourishing during the pandemic and are in a position to assist in this time of need. Tax incentives can be extended to individuals or organisations who contribute cash towards women in need as short-term relief as well as provide employment opportunities for long-term financial sustenance.
Now is the time to design a social safety net that empowers women most at risk
The gender-bias embedded in the current stimulus package is extremely concerning. The WAO recommends that the government strengthens the stimulus package through additional measures that reach the most at risk, regardless of their current employment status and taking into account the lived realities faced by female heads of household, self-employed women, and domestic violence survivors.
It is the people who have the least who need the most help. They are the ones who live from hand-to-mouth even during normal times – and who now stand to be bereft of even basic necessities – food and shelter. We have never been a nation to turn our back on those in need.
We should use this opportunity to implement a longer-term social safety net that accounts for and empowers often-overlooked segments of society. Only a non-discriminatory, gender-inclusive stimulus package will allow our society to emerge intact, perhaps even stronger, from this crisis.