Wages, Wealth and ‘Women’s Work’
Care giving is fundamental and intrinsically linked to the evolution and survival of our species. Taking care of the most vulnerable members of our societiy, be them children or elderly and ailing parents, is something humanity has done for thousands of years.
Yet, in our increasingly globalized world, care giving has come to be circumscribed and defined within our ever growing consumer profit-driven economies, as ‘unskilled’ work. Work that is carried out for the most part in an invisible care economy and is not factored into most economic measures of productivity and wellbeing, notably a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Per Capita Income (PCI).
Fundamental to all human beings, care-giving can be traced back to the very origin of our species. Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has argued that shared care-giving,or allo-parenting, may have played a key role in our evolution, hypothesizing that human evolution may have taken place in large part thanks to the development of relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities that favoured shared care-giving in order to allow the greatest number of infants to survive to adulthood.
The COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of care work, and how precarious a world without effective care is. Yet a survey of over 60% of the world’s working age population reported that an estimated 16.4 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day. If this work were remunerated at a minimum hourly wage, it would amount to 9% of global GDP, or $11 trillion.
On average, care providers work more, earn less and accumulate less savings, and health and retirement protections over the course of their working lives. These disparities are evident in the U.S., where according maternity leave remains at the discretion of employers, with many workers forced to choose between keeping their jobs and leaving new born infants in care facilities full time so they may return to work.
It is largely women who bear the consequences of the unpaid care economy as they are penalized for taking time off to provide unpaid care. The burden of unpaid care contributes to the growing income inequality gap between men and women, with a pensions gap of 30–40% in OECD countries.
Worldwide, women are paid less, provided with less adequate jobs, work longer hours and often shoulder a double shift in providing unpaid care work in addition to their jobs, which often take place in an informal ‘gig economy’. Oxfam estimates that worldwide women earn close to 25% less than men, when they are paid for their work that is.
Time is a limiting factor for all care providers and the reason why many chose to opt out of work altogether to meet the care needs of dependent children or elderly or ailing parents. While right-wing commentators often frame the debate in terms of ‘family values’ and the ‘choice’ between staying at home to nurture your children and returning to work and ‘abandoning’ your children to care providers, the reality is much more complex. Due to inflation, loss of job opportunities the increased costs of paid care solutions (thanks to neoliberal economic policies) many families find themselves barely able to make ends meet.
The situation is even more difficult for single parents who are forced to shoulder the financial and care work burdens of raising children on their own. The ILO reports that while around 5.2% of the population of working age people around the he world are single-parent households, with women representing close to 80% of these households.
Yet economic measures and forecasts continue to largely ignore free care labour even as the COVID pandemic has highlighted just how valuable care work is. As more and more people, mostly women, have been forced out of the work force to care for children, many are warning that it make take generations for the damage to the economic prospects of these unpaid caregivers to be recovered.
Economic indexes that factor in the cost of unpaid care work such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) or the OECD’s Better Life Index, consistently report lower overall economic performance once these costs are factored in, meaning the work provided by unpaid care workers provides a premium to the economy as a whole which impacts everyone’s overall quality of life.
The pandemic has highlighted how fundamental care work is. The most vulnerable members of our societies rely on care workers — from the elderly and ailing to infants and children. Long classified as ‘women’s work’, caregivers including nurses, teachers, child care and care home workers are often unpaid or paid lamentable wages in the vast majority of countries. And yet, a cost is always incurred for unpaid care, a cost which is, for the most part, shouldered by women and girls. As a 2009 working paper by the ILO observes:
‘Unpaid care work entails a systemic transfer of hidden subsidies to the rest of the economy that go unrecognized, imposing a systematic time-tax on women throughout their life cycle.’
So, will COVID change things? It’s unlikely. Many forecasters predict that the pandemic will make things worse. Until all care work is valued and included in economic measures, it will remain overlooked, overshadowed, and invisible to policy makers.