In-depth | COVID-19

Working women and the pandemic

By - 14.07.2021

Covid-19, unemployment, and the challenges of the informal sector.

When Arta heard the news about the latest relaxation of pandemic restrictions, the first things that came to her mind were the prospect of double shifts and the image of her bent silhouette hunched over her sewing machine. 

“It is that time of the year when you cannot get your head away from your sewing machine,” she said. “By the end of the summer only my back can tell the long hours of work and sitting.”

Large weddings, which were prohibited throughout the last year in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, were allowed to start again in mid-June as part of the gradual reopening of the economy. The announcement forced soon-to-be newlyweds to rush to schedule dates and book venues at the same time that huge numbers of diaspora are expected to arrive this summer.

Those coming from abroad will not only add to the joy of family weddings, but also give a much needed boost to the country’s economy, which suffered from the diaspora’s absence over the last year.

But for Arta, who requested a pseudonym in order to speak freely, wedding season means non-stop work.

Since 2013 Arta has worked as a seamstress in the informal sector, meaning she has no contract and does not receive pension or health contributions. Her monthly wages are now 250 euros but for the first four years of work she received only 150 euros a month.

“I am over 50, what choice do I have?” she said. “Many people I know are working as tailors, and believe me, those working for famous designers often work in double shifts during the whole year. At least in the place I work we have double shifts only during the busy summer of weddings and celebrations.”

Kosovo’s Informal Sector

According to the Independent Trade Union of Private Sector Workers, 50% of workers in Kosovo are in the informal sector. Though exact figures are hard to come by, women — whether working as tailors, house cleaners, hairdressers or seasonal agricultural laborers — make up a large portion of the informal workforce. Informal sector labor is neither taxed nor protected by the government, which means labor violations are common. Besides the lack of a contract, most informal workers receive low wages and no social welfare benefits.

It is difficult to know the full scope of the informal economy in Kosovo, but some reports indicate that it makes up more than 30% of the country’s GDP. At roughly 1.8 billion euros per year, the informal sector’s size approaches the total annual state budget of 2.4 billion euros.

According to experts, the rate of informal labor participation is kept high through weak rule of law and the lack of governmental infrastructure to monitor and regulate Kosovo’s economy and tax framework, leaving many workers in precarious situations.

Though there are some survey-based estimates, there are no official statistics illuminating women’s participation in the informal sector. According to a report from the Riinvest Institute, a think tank in the field of socio-economic development, around 30% of women working in the private sector work without a contract. 

Women in the private sector work longer than those in the public sector, at times over 10 hours a day. They are also paid less, work weekends and during official holidays, and receive pay irregularly.

Sexhide Mustafa, vice-director of the Riinvest Institute, said that high participation of women in the informal economy — a global trend for developing countries — can contribute to the under-representation of gender in official statistics.

“The data divided according to gender about the informal economy in Kosovo are of a poor quality,” Mustafa said. Though old labor assessments indicated that more men than women worked in the informal sector, Mustafa said that “qualitative data suggested that women working in the private sector often work in an informal way, without any social protection, and without contracts.”

The Riinvest Institute’s surveys indicate that women in the private sector work longer than those in the public sector, at times over 10 hours a day. They are also paid less, work weekends and during official holidays, and receive pay irregularly. Furthermore, according to Riinvest, approximately 75% of these women never receive the overtime pay that they are legally owed.

Unemployment and the pandemic

The global response to the pandemic has indirectly worsened women’s domestic and labor situation both during life under lockdown and in periods of the lockdown’s easing. Perhaps the most widely discussed issue has been the spike in domestic violence, the result of many women being isolated with their abusers behind closed doors.

Along with this worrying development, women’s labor conditions, both domestic and professional, have worsened dramatically. Many women are facing additional unpaid work in the home, while professional work as carers, housekeepers, tailors or hairdressers has been severely hampered by the pandemic. Not only have hours and pay in these industries been cut back, once lockdown restrictions were eased, these workers were often exposed to the public and the coronavirus.

A report from UN Women last year analyzed the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak across Europe and Central Asia and observed that over 40% of women did less paid work during the outbreak. The most affected were women from Kosovo. A more recent report from Democracy for Development (D4D), an organization focused on research and policy analysis, found that in Kosovo 5.3% of women and 2.6% of men had their employment contracts terminated as a result of the pandemic and that 26% of women were sent on unpaid leave.

According to data from the Kosovo Agency of Statistics (KAS), the pandemic had a major impact on the economy. In the second quarter of 2020, real GDP growth plunged from 1.3% to -9.3%, while unemployment rose from 25% to 27.2%. The World Bank found that Kosovo’s GDP had contracted by 6.9% in 2020. 

A recent GAP Institute analysis of KAS data finds that the pandemic has led to Kosovo having its highest ever recorded number of active job seekers, 198,000. From March to April 2020, the number of active job seekers rose by more than 32,000, and from April to May by approximately an additional 35,000. The number of active job seekers continued to rise until September 2020 when the peak was reached, before declining through February 2021 when the number was approximately 106,000 registered job seekers.

"Any complaint can lead to the employer firing you at anytime,"

Arta, tailor.

Most registered job seekers were between 25 and 39 years old, and the distribution of men and women was nearly equal.

“The scale of informality is noticeable [in the data provided by KAS],” Dita Dobranja, a feminist economist said. “The increased number of young people and women searching for jobs tells more about the situation of the labor market than about the employment or unemployment level.”

These numbers may also be leaving many job seekers out.

According to Mustafa from Riinvest, middle aged women tend to register as job seekers less often because they face greater difficulty accessing the labor market.

We are talking about a generation which during the war had inadequate education and after the war due to socio-economic conditions have been left out of opportunities to participate in additional training or further education,” Mustafa said.

Arta understands her precarious employment situation well, and these types of pressures are what make her scared to be publicly identified. Though she works in a relatively humane workplace — enjoying a lunch break and the right to short daily pauses, allowances her acquaintances at other tailor shops don’t have — she knows that without a contract, “any complaint can lead to the employer firing you at any time, especially now that the pandemic has increased the demand for jobs.”

This increase in job seekers is, according to GAP, partly the result of large scale layoffs at the beginning of the pandemic as well as the emergency fiscal measures approved last year by the Vetëvendosje government. The Emergency Fiscal Package provided for a monthly payment of 130 euros to individuals registered as unemployed at employment centers, and who were not currently the beneficiary of any other payments from Kosovo’s budget.

GAP noted that those who registered as job seekers during that time have yet to report to the Agency whether they have found employment. According to the rules, job seekers must report to the Employment Agency of the Republic of Kosovo (APRK) every three months to indicate their employment status and to receive further guidance if they are still unemployed, otherwise they will be removed from unemployment rosters. 

During 2020, APRK decided to change to “Inactive” the status of those job seekers who had failed to report for at least three months after registering as job seekers, and this may have partly caused the decline of job seekers by the end of 2020. 

The report says that the reason for the failure to report by some job seekers could be the fact that some of them may work in the informal sector, which allows them to register with APRK as unemployed.

Breaking down the numbers

According to data from February 2021, out of the total active job seekers from the 25-39 age group 22,662 were men and 19,197 were women. The smallest number of jobseekers were in the 55+ age group, with 7,972 men and 6,088 women.

In terms of level of education, 45% of active job seekers were uneducated, 20% completed primary education, 21% completed vocational secondary education, 7% completed secondary education and about 8% completed higher education. Uneducated job seekers, those with primary and secondary education, are predominantly men, while jobseekers with higher education (Bachelor or Master’s degree) are predominantly women.

Overall, only 14.4% of women and 46.2% of men are employed. Only 21.5% of women are active in the labour market, meaning either employed or unemployed and seeking a job, compared to 58.9% of men.

Pandemic measures and gender

Feminst activists and gender experts have argued that the government measures to prevent the spread of the virus and to restart the economy are clearly lacking a prior gender analysis or consultation with civil society.  

“There is no measure of how different people are affected by the pandemic,” Mirishahe Syla, gender expert, said to K2.0

Instead, the measures “are directed toward a homogenous group in Kosovo with the perspective that all are the same, without taking account of any special needs. Women are forgotten, single mothers are forgotten, minorities and people with disabilities are forgotten,” said Syla. “Measures are directed toward Albanian men that are already in work, with the government taking only the model of the man that has a business and particular incomes.”

At times of crisis governments do not allow big companies to fail, said Dobranja, an aspect which was reflected in Kosovo’s Economic Recovery Plan presented by the Hoti government last year.

“Women are present in micro and small businesses and therefore have less chance to survive. And as a result they had to either stop or pause economic activity, including dismissing workers from their jobs,” Dobranja said. “Then this makes it very difficult for them to return to the market.”

Many critics said that the measures proposed by former Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti targeted only big businesses. Out of the low number of employed women in Kosovo, 10% of them own their own business. The majority of these businesses are small, providing services such as tailoring and hair styling. Given the informality in these sectors, there are thousands of women like Arta that haven’t received any support. 

In the first week of July, the Kurti government introduced a new recovery plan focusing on employment. A budget of 50 million euros has been set aside to create new jobs and support job seekers. Out of this sum, 5 million euros are budgeted to support women’s employment.

Although the measures appear more promising for average Kosovar workers and job seekers compared to the previous recovery plan, a detailed analysis is needed to understand who exactly will benefit from the plan. 

As for Arta, government decisions or policies have rarely given her hope. “If something from these new measures helps me, then it is welcome. But I am not waiting for anything,” she said.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.





This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union as part of the project “Citizens Engage”, implemented by K2.0 in partnership with GAP Institute. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and GAP Institute and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union’