For U.K.’s minority women, economic toll of lockdown lingers
By Ceylan Yeaginsu
Within 10 days of the British government’s lockdown announcement in late March, one woman lost all nine of her cleaning jobs. Another was laid off from a laundromat after she requested a mask, and a live-in nanny was fired for using public transport on her day off.
In separate interviews, the three women said that they had expected to confront hardships during the lockdown. But as the economy starts to reopen, they and other women on the lower rungs of the economy say they are still struggling, weighed down by debts accumulated during the freeze and often facing pay cuts or forced to do more work for the same wages.
The three have one other thing in common: They are all women of color, a group that has long faced economic and racial inequality in Britain and is now being hit disproportionately by the financial and psychological impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent study by a group of British universities and women’s charities.
“COVID-19 has brought the harsh realities of preexisting racial inequalities into sharp relief, and nowhere is this more manifest than the disproportionate social and economic impact of COVID-19 on Black and ethnic minority women,” said Zubaida Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust, a London-based organization advocating racial equality.
The main reason that people of color are so vulnerable, experts say, is that they are more likely to be in precarious employment or to become unemployed, making it harder for them to qualify for government support and to protect themselves from the virus.
Minji Paik, a Korean beautician who works in a hair salon in East London, said she made 15 pounds an hour before the pandemic, about $19 dollars, plus tips. Now she is making 10 pounds an hour and has been working longer shifts because of staff shortages.
“My manager says this is temporary and she will give me more money when we make money,” Paik said. “But actually, I should be paid more because I’m working inside and risking my health.”
A government review of the disparities in the risk and outcomes from the coronavirus found that death rates have been higher in Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups than in white groups. The review found that Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and other Asians as well as Caribbeans and other Black people had from 10% to 50% higher risk of death than white Britons.
“There’s often a risk when people start talking about the underlying causes of death because of the assumption that the reason is related to genetics or poor diets,” said Bridget Byrne, director of the Center on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester. “But actually, you need to look at the wider process of racism and the structuring of race and deprivation.”
The precarious nature of the current labor market is a contributing factor as well, Byrne said. “It makes people less willing to voice their concerns. They worry that if they say, ‘I don’t feel safe; I don’t think I should be coming in,’ they will be the first to be laid off.”
Candice Brown, 48, a cleaner who is of Jamaican descent, said she had lost all her clients when lockdown measures were imposed in March.
“They phoned me one by one to say don’t come,” she recalled, referring to the owners of the nine houses she cleaned each week in the city of Manchester, in northwestern England. “Each call was like a bomb, blasting every bit of my livelihood until I had no work left.”
For two months she tried to navigate the government’s financial support system for those affected by the pandemic and even borrowed money from a friend to hire an accountant to help. But eventually, she found out that she was not eligible for any aid because she lacked the paperwork to prove her employment history.
“I applied for universal credit,” she said, referring to the government’s income support program. “But I am still waiting. I haven’t received a penny.”
Even with the easing of the lockdown measures, Brown has not been invited back to work because her employers fear that she could contract and spread the virus by working between multiple households.
“I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this,” she said. “In the first month, I was worrying about how to pay my rent and my bills. Now I can’t sleep, worrying about how to feed my children.”
Zuhr Rind, 48, a Pakistani laundromat worker in East London, was asked to work the last shift when the pandemic broke out so that she could wash the uniforms of the front-of-house employees, who collected laundry from clients.
“I was not happy about it, but what could I do? Work is work, and I was afraid to lose my job if I made an argument,” she said.
When she asked for a face mask, her manager chided her, she said. “That is pathetic, Z,” her manager wrote back in a text message she showed to The New York Times. “Doctors and nurses do not even have enough masks, and they’re still going to work.”
A day later, Rind said, she was laid off. “When you have brown skin, when you have an accent and when you don’t have a high education, you don’t have choices,” she said. “And this is a very dangerous situation to be in during COVID.”
The laundromat where she worked did not respond to a request for comment. Verona Pollard, an experienced nanny and maternity nurse, has taken up part-time child care work since she was fired from a full-time nannying job after her employer found out she had taken public transport on her days off.
“She was ruthless about it and wouldn’t take me back, even when the lockdown was lifted,” she said in a phone interview. “ It’s been brutal since then. I’m just doing odd jobs here and there.”
And in the Fawcett Society’s survey, work-related anxiety was highest among Black and minority ethnic women, with 65.1% of women employed outside the home reporting that they felt apprehensive as a result of having to go to work during the pandemic.
Brown, the cleaner in Manchester, said that she was still waiting for her unemployment benefits to come through and that she had been borrowing money from a friend and from a former employer to get by. In recent weeks, she said she has become so stressed and anxious that rashes have broken out all over her body and she has noticed her hair falling out.
“I promise you, what I am going through now is worse than any virus,” she said.