Black women, Gender Equality and Universal Basic Income

Tracey Reynolds

Friday, 27 January 2017

Feminist debates have been central to discussions on the benefits and pitfalls of a Universal Basic Income for women and what this would mean for gender equality. Much of this focus has been of the care dimension of women’s contribution to the labour market. However this presupposes that women all experience their caring role, responsibilities and labour in a homogenous way, ignoring important differences, such as class, ‘race’ generational divisions that exist between these women.

For example, the argument that universal basic income would encourage women, especially those in low-paid and low education employment, to exit the labour market in providing childcare and domestic labour at home on a full-time basis, and by doing so, reinforcing men’s and women’s gendered normative role within the families completely disregards the historical and cultural experiences of Black women, and other racialized migrant women, in the UK labour market.   Some of my earlier research work highlighted that the continued high rates of Black women engagement in paid and full-time employment outside of their home means that they are able to construct for themselves a mothering identity that combines their dual status of economic worker and domestic carer (Reynolds 2005).  

The subordinate position that Black women continue to occupy in the labour market on account of their racialized gendered status reveals itself in the limited employment opportunities Black women encounter. There is a plethora of research evidence pointing to the fact that Black women are statistically more likely to engage in low-paid jobs with low levels of job security and employment protection rights.  This has continued to be an ongoing and collective experience for Black women since labour market data statistically reported on the demographic profile of individuals’ labour market contribution according to gender, ethnic/racial backgrounds. As recently as December 2016, a research finding report by Runnymede Trust suggested that Black women in the role as paid workers or ‘economic breadwinners’ have been hit the hardest by recent austerity measures and the tax and benefit changes. This is because Black women are most likely to be employed in these very job sectors and services: i.e. ‘frontline’ public sector and at the very levels (i.e low-paid, temporary and low level) where services are being cut and slashed back to the bone.  Although there is a case for arguing that the UBI could offset some of this financial loss and provide an income which allows for a basic measure of economic security;  it is very clear that the provision of the UBI would not deter  Black women from taking out paid work outside of the home as they have always done,  and nor would it impact on their conceptualisations of gender and the care-giving model.

The focus on UBI as a way of securing gender equality detracts from the more fundamental issue of addressing the broader systems of oppression and structural inequalities that Black women experience in the labour market and society more generally. Therefore, and as McLean and MckKay (2015) argue, it is important that any discussion of the UBI moves beyond gendered division of labour to highlight other forms of disadvantage and oppression encountered by women with intersected identities. It  is all too easy with UBI to make invisible other systems of inequality, such as zero-contract hours that afford workers – disproportionately drawn from white working class, BME and migrant communities – limited or no employment protection rights in terms of holiday pay, sick pay and maternity rights and to allow for the exploitation of these workers to remain unchallenged.

Universal basic income also disguises other forms of gender equality informing family policy, e.g. child poverty; the restrictions on family reunification by migrants from Global South territories as a result of changes to immigration legislation.  Also, the way in which women themselves may be complicit in perpetuating disadvantage and inequality. Here I am thinking of  the economic exploitation of women by the Global South, who are primarily Black or racialized women  by racially privileged and elite  women living in the Global North who  buy in cheap, migrant labour to undertake caring tasks within their families (e.g. as nannies/aupairs, cleaners, carers of sick/elderly family members), and the rise of the global care chain driving the global redistribution of care work (Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2002).

I am yet to be convinced that UBI would alleviate gender inequality as the experiences of Black women in the UK show that they broader and intersecting systems of inequalities that contribute to disadvantage they face in their everyday lived experience.  If the debate for UBI is not understood and contextualised within broader anti-poverty and anti-exploitation agenda, which recognises multiple strands and systems of inequality, than there is a danger that the call for UBI, which is strongly tied to childcare and economic provision within feminist debates,  could deter other wider and global forms of  inequality, oppression and exploitation from coming to the fore in policy debates.  

Tracey Reynolds is a professor of social sciences at the University of Greenwich. Her piece is part of our blog series ‘Universal Basic Income: Security for the Future?’, you can read the other articles in the series here. 

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