After a year full of shifts during the Covid-19 pandemic at a small nursing home in Barbados, care worker Rosamund Forde is exhausted. The 51-year-old has been covering shifts for colleagues more worn out than even she feels. She does it without overtime pay.
“The days are longer as the workload has increased,” Rosamund says of her job in Barbados. “Some of the caregivers become tired so you’re always asked to step in to do a lot of their work.”
Like many women around the globe in women-led industries—such as health care, tourism and education—Barbadian women bear the brunt of frontline pressures during a global pandemic that has crushed economies. Many countries, such as the United States, Brazil and the United Kingdom, have documented what experts call a “shecession”, an economic recession, or downturn, that affects more women than men for the first time. Globally, women’s jobs are nearly twice as vulnerable as men’s in this crisis. Similarly, in Barbados, with a downward trending unemployment rate through parts of 2020 and a shrinking economy, the impact of Covid-19 on the tourism and services industries is especially severe for women, according to the United Nations.
In Barbados, Prime Minister Mia Mottley is looking to those whom she identifies as responsible for hundreds of years of systemic inequality in her country for a partial solution.
Part of the responsibility for rebuilding Barbados, the prime minister has argued throughout the pandemic, must fall to the small island nation’s former coloniser, the UK, in the form of reparations to account for hundreds of years of racial injustice. Citing racism, systemic inequality and the centuries-long legacy of enslavement by the British into the present day, Mottley – the first woman to lead the country—argued last summer amid the expansive racial reckoning.
“For us, reparations is not just simply about money but it is also about justice,” Mottley said, announcing the demand in July 2020.
“I do not know how we can go further unless there is a reckoning first and foremost that places an apology and an acknowledgement that a wrong was done. And that successive centuries saw the extraction of wealth and the destruction of people that must never happen to any society, to any race in any part of this world again.”
Reparatory justice is not a new issue. Caribbean reparations Committee CARICOM, which Mottley currently chairs, first asked the UK, France and the Netherlands for reparations in 2013, following decades of argument by historians of the region who attribute inequality in Caribbean countries as a direct result of centuries of economic exploitation. This, advocates say, reverberates as unpaid labour primarily carried out by women across the Caribbean.
The deep rooted history of colonialism makes this call a layered and complex one that requires structural attention. Education has been adversely affected and needs vast replanning to reduce gender disparities within Caribbean society, experts say. As well as economically investing back into the region, redistribution of this money into opening up wide opportunities for women also needs to occur.
Targeted training helping Caribbean women become digitally literate and make it in the advancing marketplace must be put in place, so that they can transition into higher-paying jobs. In removing limits on women’s financial power and the ability to build assets through policy rebuilding, reparations in this form would also be valuable.
Mottley’s call comes as the pandemic has exacerbated inequality among income-insecure populations, renewing decades-long efforts to demand reparations from European nations. Unique to this demand, experts say, this call is also an opportunity to course correct the economic and social poverty that has especially crushed women this past year.
Mottley has been an influential figure in the island nation since she took office in 2018. She has embraced her country’s LGBTQI+ community and pushed ahead with legislation granting same-sex civil unions. Her decision last year to break from the Commonwealth and remove the British Queen Elizabeth as its head of state has been celebrated by republicans both in the UK and across the Caribbean.
Ambassador: Reparations are not ‘a knee-jerk reaction’
However, reparations activist and legal expert Esther Stanford-Xosei has argued that women’s rights in the region won’t improve unless members of Caribbean government and CARICOM include more women to back gender-focused policies. “A recognition of participatory development which is more responsive to women’s needs is required in shaping the solutions,” she says.
Now, throughout the pandemic, the 55-year-old has made deliberate moves to bolster support for women. She introduced furlough schemes for hotel workers, predominantly women, who work as maids and front desks clerks, form the vast majority of employees.
“Without a doubt, the [prime minister] is acutely aware of what the pandemic means for the lives of women and girls, and the ways in which she did the call for reparatory justice has to do with these issues in mind,” says Tonya Haynes, a lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies.
The call for reparations is part of this, says Liz Thompson, Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations. “[Reparations] are not a knee-jerk reaction. We’re looking at long term growth of development.” A quick money fix is not the way Barbados will be able to rebuild itself following the pandemic, Thompson emphasises.
“This is what was taken from us. This is what is needed to create long-term sustainable development,” she says, adding that Barbados will make a “sustained effort” in the post-Covid-19 landscape to provide education and job opportunities to girls and women and support businesses owned by women.
Building a road map to reparations
CARICOM has created a 10-point road map for reparations, including the cancellation of debt, boosting literacy rates and helping to alleviate a public health crisis inundated with high rates of diabetes and hypertension spurred by the conditions of slavery, which brought Black Africans to the island from the 17th Century. Many of the points are central to the lives of women and girls, says Haynes.
“As Caribbean people we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not leave them behind, and because we have women leading this work on reparations, that will not happen,” she says.
Reparations came into renewed focus last month in the UK when The Observer revealed that a wealthy Conservative MP, Richard Drax, recently inherited the plantation where his ancestors created the first slave-worked sugar plantation in the 17th century.
Though Drax has now been forced by public outcry to add the plantation to his “member’s interests” list, he has refused to acknowledge the wealth brought to him by slavery, or answer CARICOM’s demand that he repay the people of Barbados, saying “no one” can be held responsible for what happened hundreds of years ago.
Women working in the Caribbean continue to suffer from effects of the past, working in this current, stressful climate. More than 170 kilometres to the northwest of Barbados, on the volcanic island of St Lucia, carers are strained working up to seven days a week for as little as $4 a day, several care workers tell gal-dem.
“I’m working longer than normal hours and have put on 30 pounds (14 kg) due to emotional eating,” says Regina Posvar, 54, a former US nurse turned care worker who now cares for a single elderly patient at their home in St. Lucia.
St. Lucia joins push for reparatory justice
After Mottley’s call, St. Lucia joined Barbados in the push for reparatory justice through its National Reparations Committee (NRC), asking for developmental restructuring which could ultimately solve the issue of unpaid work rife among women in the West Indies. “Carers are not even considered a profession out here,” Posvar says. “The pay rate keeps them in poverty.”
Another care worker in St. Michael, Barbados says she is not sure the reparations would make it to those who work in the predominantly private sector.
“I truly don’t know even if the government were to receive some measure of refunding that this would be filtered down to care workers,” says the 52-year-old care worker who asked not to be named. Rather, she points out, this could be an opportunity for the government to support families, many of whom cannot afford to keep their family members in the long term care facilities.
“If families that cannot afford to take care of their dementia cases put these patients in a government-owned institution, then companies that sell different supplies that the elderly need, [such as diapers], is where I can see reparations benefiting.”
That systemic poverty in Barbados, Thompson says, is precisely why the prime minister has called for reparations in the middle of the pandemic.
“If you’re able to make people self-sufficient, to create viable businesses that have a marketplace, then you are talking about empowering women,” she says. “What I’m hoping to come out of this [call for reparations] is [a] more targeted policy that ensures women do not fall behind as a result of the pandemic.”