The economics of care and the role of the unions – CIDSE

The economics of care and the role of the unions

A friend recently told me about a science fiction book where all individuals living on an imaginary planet are “ambisexual”, with no fixed gender identity, thus both being able to give birth, breastfeed their new-born children and taking care of their dependents.

N.B: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect CIDSE’s official positions.

Clearly the writer, the feminist Ursula Le Guin, is trying to suggest how society and social relations would look like when gender roles are not relevant any more. Imagine that!

On planet Earth however, the reality is that the gender roles that women are traditionally assigned to have a very “negative” direct impact on their participation in the labour market, their wages and the type of employment that is available for them. As a result, women are disproportionally represented in low-paid, undervalued and unsecure employment. Making their situation even harder, many women are severely affected by harsh austerity policies adopted and implemented in an increasing number of countries.

Every day women around the world spend between 2 to 10 times more than men on unpaid care work, including care for their beloved ones (the children, the ill and the elderly) as well as domestic and household tasks (cooking, cleaning, collecting food and fuel, fetching water etc). In India, women spend 6 hours per day on unpaid care work while men spend a mere one hour per day. Studies have shown that the more time women spend on unpaid care work the less likely it is for them to do work that is paid. And when they do have a paying job, this is often deemed low-skill and low value. In this dead-end situation, women feel that they are left without a choice.

Now think of the amount of ‘caring’ hours put in by billions of women every day. In the US, in 2014 alone Americans provided nearly 18 billion hours of unpaid care to family members stricken with the Alzheimer disease. What if this unpaid care work was recognized, valued, redistributed and, ultimately, a great amount of it is delivered by skilled care workers?

A new report by the ITUC argues that investing in care narrows the gender pay gap, reduces overall inequality and helps redress the exclusion of women from decent jobs. The study shows that public investment of 2% of GDP in social infrastructure (education, health and social care services) in 7 OECD countries (Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) would have a significant impact on employment creation for both women and men, help reduce the gender gap in employment, and ultimately promote greater economic growth.

For decades, unions have played a very central role in the fight for social justice and securing rights for workers, including women, youth and migrant workers. Unions have secured family-friendly work place policies and extended social protection to millions of women workers, including domestic workers, through social dialogue and collective bargaining. Since the last financial and economic crisis in 2008, unions have actively campaigned against austerity. In a recent statement, released on the eve of the ministerial-level “Spring Meetings” of the IMF and World Bank (Washington 15-17 April), the ITUC and its Global Unions partner organisations are “calling on the international financial institutions (IFIs) to take actions that support recovery of the world economy through public investments in physical and social infrastructure, including the care economy, and through wage increases.

Unpaid care work is essential to a family’s and society’s well-being. This is undisputable. In addition, the economic aspect of care, which has been generally neglected by economists and policy makers, is something that has been increasingly acknowledged by governments and international institutions. And countries, such as Chile, Japan, Ecuador, and the UK, have taken steps to help address this problem.

In 2014, the G20 established a target to reduce the gender gap in labour force participation by 25% by 2025. Putting the issue of care at the top of economic and social public policy agendas is the only possible way that this can be achieved.

About the author:

Maria Tsirantonaki works at the Equality Department of ITUC- the International Trade Union Confederation.

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