Unsung Heroines: Who Cares for the Carers?

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, who was Assistant Director-General for Economic and Social Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, and who received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007. Originally published by the InterPress Service

Even before Covid-19, the world was facing a care crisis. The plight of often neglected, under-appreciated, under-protected and poorly equipped ‘frontline’ health personnel working to contain the pandemic has drawn attention to the tip of the care crisis iceberg.

Rising Care Work Burden

Ageing populations as well as cuts to public services and social protection were making matters worse, increasing the burden on carers, or care givers/providers, regardless of their employment status.

Elderly people need long-term care as they age, while existing social arrangements, including government services, remain inadequate and ill prepared. Such demands on caregivers will continue to increase as populations grow and people live longer.

Oxfam’s annual early 2020 Davos report, Time to Care, estimates that 2.3 billion people will need care by 2030, 200 million more than in 2015, including 100 million more older people and an additional 100 million children aged 6 to 14 years.

Care work, unpaid or underpaid, is generally not visible, greatly undervalued and typically taken for granted. It is often not considered real or proper ‘work’, with spending for care work considered a cost, not an investment.

The nature of care work and gender discrimination undermines the health and well-being of its mainly female workers. Women and girls, especially the poor and marginalized, do 12.5 billion hours of care work daily for free, and much more for poor wages.

The women and girls are left ‘time-poor’, often unable to meet their own needs. Consequently, they have less time for education and paid work, let alone fully participate socially and politically.

Unpaid Care Work

The study argued that unpaid care work is essential for our economies, businesses and societies. However, unpaid care work is often underappreciated when measuring economic progress and social wellbeing, not least because this burden is mainly borne by women and girls, who do more than three-quarters of all unpaid care work.

Oxfam estimates that the monetary value of women’s unpaid care work globally, for women aged 15 and over, is at least US$10.8 trillion annually. Although high, this figure is still believed to be an underestimate, with the true figure far higher.

Women thus often earn less because their unpaid care work limits their time for paid work; in fact, 42 per cent of working age women, compared to six per cent of males, cannot get paid work due to their caregiving responsibilities.

Climate change is also increasing the need for unpaid care. In five years, up to 2.4 billion people will be living in areas without enough water, forcing women and girls to carry more water even further. Also, as global warming and other developments adversely affect health and food production, many women and girls will have to work more to cope.

Domestic Workers

Besides doing care work for free at home, many poor women also provide care for others, especially as domestic workers, among the most poorly treated employees in the world. Hence, they are also more likely to be in undesirable, poorly paid, dirty and precarious jobs.

Only about a tenth of domestic workers are covered by labour laws as much as other workers, while only around half have minimum wage protection. For more than half of all domestic workers, national laws do not limit working hours.

Meanwhile, 3.4 million domestic workers in forced labour do not get US$8 billion yearly, or about three-fifths of the wages due to them. Forced labour and trafficking cause domestic workers to be “trapped in other people’s homes”, with “their lives controlled”, but also “rendered invisible and unprotected”.

Two-thirds of the paid ‘care workforce’ are women. Jobs — such as nursery workers, domestic workers, and ‘care assistants’ — are often physically and emotionally draining, besides being poorly paid, with few benefits, despite having to work irregular hours.

Redistributing Care Burden

The Oxfam report notes that governments greatly under-tax the wealthy, and hence do not collect enough revenue to better fund vital public services, including social services and infrastructure.

Progressive taxation and spending, including subsidized social services and social protection, would reduce the burden of care work and social inequality. Better investments in electricity, water, sanitation, childcare and healthcare would improve the quality of care workers’ lives by easing their care work responsibilities.

Such efforts should recognize unpaid and poorly paid care work as providing real value. Better, affordable and equitable access to time-saving care-supporting infrastructure and devices would also reduce the burden of unpaid care tasks.

With government and employers reducing the burden of care work, redistributing unpaid care work more fairly within households would become more feasible. Enabling meaningful participation by care givers, paid and unpaid, in policy-making would also help.

Oxfam Proposals

Oxfam proposed various actions, including national care systems, to help care givers including: improving the lot of both the unpaid and the underpaid; addressing the greater burden on women and girls; improving and protecting care workers’ rights, with paid employees entitled to living wages and decent working conditions.

Governments were urged to ratify ILO Convention 189, protecting domestic workers and eliminating gender wage gaps. Societies should also challenge the harmful and discriminatory social and cultural norms that care work is the responsibility of women and girls, including by encouraging men and boys to share care work responsibilities.

Businesses must also recognize the value of care work for employees’ wellbeing and productivity. Employers should provide benefits and services, such as crèches and other childcare entitlements, while ensuring decent working conditions for care providers.

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  1. furies

    I always advise young women to not be stupid like me; taking time out of your working (paid) life will bite you on the ass as you age.

  2. Carole

    Thank you for posting on this important subject Jerri-Lynn.

    The COVID crisis temporarily (?) makes the dilemma of unpaid/underpaid carers “visible.”

    As Marilyn Waring pointed out (If Women Counted), in a society where the value of goods and services is determined by their monetary value, unpaid/underpaid care work and the inherent value of our natural world is simply “invisible” i.e., of questionable value.

    Robert Reich recently commented on the disenfranchised i.e., the “invisibles”:

    they “cling to the meritocratic myth that they’re paid what they’re “worth” in the market and that the obstacles they face are of their own making rather than an unjust system.”

    As Daniel Markovits (The Meritocracy Trap) points out, we have created an ideological “trap” called Meritocracy that justifies inequality and the unjust legal/political systems that maintain inequality.

  3. Temporarily Sane

    In a sane society the care home industry would be overhauled from the ground up and staffed by well trained and well paid workers.

    One of the underreported stories of the COVID-19 pandemic is how, in multiple countries, systemic neglect lead to the disease burning through care homes like wildfire, overwhelming the poorly paid and poorly equipped staff and killing up to half of the infected patients.

    The meta story is that in countries beholden to neoliberal technocratic social Darwinism, e.g., the US, UK but also in overrated “kinder and gentler” Sweden and Canada, the old and the sick are are increasingly written off as wastes of space and resources.

    An FT columnist, a Texas politician and others publicly musing about “culling” them to “save the economy” barely registered with the Twitter outrage mobs who ostensibly are oh-so-concerned about marginalized people getting treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

    There are some deeply disturbing trends gaining momentum in western society at the moment. We seem to moving towards a return to outright eugenics and racial essentialism (on the right and on the left) with empathy and compassion reduced to displays of performative theater…but there is almost no pushback from the media.

    It’s difficult to shake the feeling that we are collectively sleepwalking into disaster.

  4. John Zelnicker

    Interesting post, Jerri-Lynn.

    Under- and unpaid care work is a national and international disgrace. These are the folks who give our loved ones solace and comfort in the last days of their lives or enable young parents to earn a living, as well as helping the disabled live better lives.

    As the economy returns to a different version of normal, we need to find a way to compensate these caregivers commensurate with their value in the lives of those they care for. IMHO, this would be an excellent fit for a Job Guarantee.

  5. Scott1

    I have to wonder how it is that we have gotten to the situation
    that is cause for the commonality of a suicide solution as the
    rational solution to the individual sufferance that is the trap
    of poverty that comes about from low pay because there are
    so many people competing for jobs that are good and bad or

    In a world that was a competition between Communism in
    the Soviet sphere and Chinese sphere and the West of Europe
    and the US most people on their own could never gain wealth
    enough to live independently and well through old age.
    There have been people who inherited wealth and left wealth
    and there are some few countries where those who have nothing
    but their citizenship effectively are wealthy as they live without
    the disgrace that is joblessness or poverty.

    As a secular welcoming nation the US won in the competition
    for willing and skilled and willing labor for at least two centuries.
    It was when China was allowed into the WTO and allowed to
    do so while it violated the UN ’76 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
    and Capitalists with no national loyalty used its work force because
    wages were allowed to be low while polluting industry meant the
    air and water in China became poisonous, there was as is natural
    to the capitalist system no room for the pandemic in the US.

    The US police being militarized as a consequence of years since
    Nixon, the opening of China, and the acceptance of a federal Drug War
    has become the end of US civilization, just about.
    It will not be soon that there will be any way other that social distancing
    and masks that the pandemic will be driven back.

    There is also climate change to be dealt with.

    As long as Trump and Mitch McConnell are in power we cannot
    expect legislation that radically changes who gets paid well
    and who doesn’t or most any other change necessary to shore up
    and build a financial system worthy of the civilization we, or
    a lot of us have as the goal.

    The reason Modern Monetary Theory must be understood and
    employed is the survival of civilization on ethical accounts and
    physical accounts now called Antropocene.
    Thanks, really, Thanks.

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