The individualisation of social benefits

Last Updated on Friday, 12 March, 2021 at 11:12 am by Andre Camilleri

Professor JosAnn Cutajar, Department for Gender and Sexualities, Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta

Sexism is a system of oppression that privileges men and discriminates against women.

It is legitimised by a system of attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes and other types of bias that perpetuate the idea that women are somehow lesser than men. These attitudes guide social interaction and behaviour, but more importantly these prejudicial ideas, internalised by those in positions of power, leads to women’s systemic oppression.

Women face different types of sexism on an everyday basis. Hostile sexism is the act which often comes to mind when we think of “sexism”. Hostile sexism can involve overt physical and verbal aggression. Benevolent sexism is less likely to be taken into consideration. This takes the form of inappropriate “compliments” that focus on a woman’s looks, which reproduce the idea that women should be judged primarily on their physical appearance and sexuality rather than their competence in the public sphere. “Unintentional” or “accidental” sexism encompass “jokes”, comments and behaviour that people put down to ignorance. Examples include the putting up of pictures of semi-naked women at work or speaking about professionals, such as engineers, using the pronoun “he”. When put on the spot, men and sometimes women who have internalised a pejorative idea of women, argue that it is a joke. The constant exposure to these constant slights though tends to be internalised by the majority of women who end up having a negative self-image.

What concerns me here is institutional sexism. Institutional sexism occurs when those in positions of power design and implement legislation, policies and measures that are based on stereotypical societal and cultural expectations of women, which beliefs have dire consequences for all women.

Let us take caring for example. Society expects women to be the primary carers when it comes to taking care of children, the sick, persons with a disability and the elderly. Due to these expectations, a good number of women withdraw from the labour market when they have vulnerable people to take care of, as we have seen during this pandemic, or work on a part-time or reduced basis. As a consequence, they progress at a lower pace in their career, which will then impact on how much they earn.

With the pandemic, part-time and reduced work contracted by 10.5% in Malta (NSO 2021). More women resort to part-time or reduced hours because it enables them to juggle work with caring responsibilities. With the pandemic, women had to choose between facing unemployment or opting to work on a full-time basis (Table 1). This raised the employment rate of women, while that of men contracted by 1.3%. Unlike other countries, the rate of inactive women decreased, while that of inactive men increased, although the inactivity rate among women still remains higher than that of men. Unemployment increased for the two genders in this time period, with women experiencing a slightly higher propensity than their male counterparts. The number of average hours worked per week also went down for the two genders (Table 2). Things would really be dire for women without the wage supplement since a good percentage of them work in sectors badly hit by the pandemic, such as the hospitality sector.  Gender desegregated of the uptake of wage supplement would be helpful here.

With the economic crises brought about by the pandemic, the fear is that policymakers might give men priority access to work when the pandemic is over. ACAP (2020) underlines that countries which adopt the breadwinner model often give precedence to male workers in uncertain times, as Malta has done in the past.

With the pandemic a number of unemployed workers – both men and women – are going to have gaps in their social contributions. Women did so prior to the pandemic due to the caring penalty. It is high time that social security benefits are de-linked from working life. During the pandemic, and before, where caring and women were concerned, a number end up missing social insurance credits through no fault of their own. We need new forms of social protection, which are not linked to employment status.

Another issue, which is discriminatory, is the fact that the Maltese Social Security Act underlines that citizens and residents can access different forms and types of social benefits depending on their relationship to the head of the household. When there is more than one person living in a household, claimant’s access to social benefits depends on their relationship to the head of the household. The head of the household, the Social Security Act adds “means such person as in the opinion of the director the head of household” (Government of Malta, 2018, p. 6), which is often the oldest male.

This definition has negative ramifications for other household members. The head of household gets adjudicated the “married rate” which is higher in monetary terms. In the case of contributory benefits, this rate will be affected if other members of the household start working or receiving a pension in their own right. This might lead the head of household to prevent other household members from finding employment, applying for social benefits or asking for their share of this benefit. When social benefits are addressed to the head of household, this could lead to exclusionary budgetary practices since the rest of the household is financially dependent on the handouts meted out by a husband/father.

Malta needs to do away with household-based social benefits and introduce the individualisation of social benefits. Protection for those doing unpaid care work should not depend on household-based social security insurance, because this will lead to problems when households break up. Household-based derived rights pension systems may push women into participating in the informal economy or non-standard forms of employment. The basis of household rather than individual grounds effects women’s participation patterns and benefit systems.

It is high time that the Social Security Act is revised and we see a change in the design, coverage, level of support and delivery mechanisms of social protection schemes to ensure that all citizens are covered and provided with a secure base.

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