Championing reform of the construction sectorWednesday, April 14, 2021
Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke has announced as the “the largest sums to be spent in any one fiscal year on infrastructure projects” some $31.1 billion or 51.8 per cent of the SERVE Jamaica Programme. From his perspective “disciplined policy choices” and “prioritising within priorities” are among the principles to govern the recovery of the economy through this capital investment.
Clarke shared that confidence in the construction sector was based on its continued growth despite the novel coronavirus pandemic and the conviction of builders and developers that “there is a brighter future ahead for Jamaica”.
Minister of Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment and Climate Change Pearnel Charles Jr, who sees his role “to champion the construction sector”, should have strong influence on the expenditure. His approach focuses on “identifying the problems and crafting the solutions to drive construction and development”.
Data on employment in this prized construction sector is very disarming of confidence in a brighter future for women unless creative and transformative measures are taken.
The data in the table shows women are virtually absent from the sector. Even in the period from July to October, when there was an increase, women's employment contracted from the already paltry level hovering at three per cent. This reinforces our understanding that occupational segregation and employment discrimination affecting women is very much alive and active despite the promising growth that construction is said to have shown.
Before we rush to say that there are no barriers to women's participation in the sector, let us do the research on gender and the construction sector, examining the experiences of the scores of women, in particular those trained by the Women's Constructive Collective over the past 30 years, the many others who, through initiatives of organisations such as the Women's Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) ventured into training in HEART but have not been able to sustain their participation. Examine the current situation with training in construction skills through HEART to inform the design and implementation of programmes to open opportunities for women at all levels of this key sector.
The inequality in construction reflects women's unequal access to economic opportunities in a larger lop-sided labour market. Here women are 45 per cent of the labour force, employed in the lower-paying service sectors, and gender wage differentials persist even for professional women like engineers in construction and related occupations. On top of this is the higher rate of unemployment among women, which in October 2020 stood at 13 per cent, with men being 8.6 per cent. Among young women the unemployment rate was 33.4 per cent; among young men it was 23.3 per cent.
The larger context of inequality must be considered. Can the growth in construction percolate to address the rising rural poverty or stem the hunger engulfing the many minimum wage earners who have lost or seen reduced employment under COVID-19? Will it stem the hunger of the many children and families, especially those headed by women, who daily face the rising and further anticipated food price increases?
While there is understandably much zeal to forge ahead and champion the construction sector, if this must yield benefits across the board and help to address the interest of broad sectors of the population, then goals consistent with gender and social equity that can also foster transformation of the labour market must be pursued.
Such a perspective and approach is consistent with aspects of the policy framework which has been put forward on paper here and there, but not pursued. The Gender Sector Plan (2009) of the Vision 2030 National Development Plan committed to “address structural barriers that create and reinforce sex segregation of the labour market” (Gender Sector Plan, p. 81). The same intention was expressed in the 2011 National Policy on Gender Equality. The current Medium Term Socio-Economic Policy Framework (MTF) of Vision 2030 speaks to a plan for the implementation of the Construction Industry Policy. A host of specific issues related to women's gender interests and benefiting men are implicated. This includes giving attention to ensuring that the decent work agenda is effectively implemented.
Championing the development of the construction sector therefore calls for specific measures, among them:
1) Ensuring that achieving gender and social equity are implemented in line with policy commitments so that women and men can equally benefit from public financing of development. This will require special measures to address structural barriers facing women in all areas in order to ensure that the inequalities revealed by the data on men and women in construction are not perpetuated.
2) Providing information and support to enable women to exercise the right to choose an occupation in the construction sector in all areas. Many women are interested but resources and support are needed as well as a broader and shared vision among stakeholders of where women can be immediately employed and supported into entrepreneurship within the industry.
3) Address through education, sensitisation, incentives, and other measures, gender biases that inhibit women and encourage mindset change among women and girls, men and boys, around the benefits of gender equality and equity.
4) Ensure that employment and involvement in the construction sector address the needs of women and men through social protection, safety and sanitation measures.
5) Provide incentives to contractors/developers to recruit and train women, for example using special credits in the procurement process.
6) Examine the position and views of professionals in the construction and related sectors and their organisations to incorporate their concerns and suggestions into policy and programmes.
7) Use the instrument of gender responsive budgeting to bring clarity and coherence within a joined-up-government approach to embed gender equality and equity principles and practices in national post-COVID-19 planning and recovery efforts.
The ministries responsible for economic growth and job creation; finance and the public service; housing, urban renewal, environment and climate change; labour and social security; and culture, gender, entertainment and sport need to come onto the same page on how to ensure that 'development' in the construction sector does not continue to leave women and their families behind.
Linnette S Vassell is a community development and gender specialist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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