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Measuring the true cost of care

The vital importance of emphasising care work to advance gender justice

By Lauren Danielowski Guest Author · 04th June, 2024
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Image by TopSphere Media / Unsplash

This blog was published as part of our Global Research & Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract, a joint project with UN-RISD, supported by funds received from the European Union.

Lauren Danielowski is a PhD student in the department of sociology at the University of Connecticut, USA. Her current work examines the relationship between reproductive rights, economic rights and reproductive technologies. Lauren is committed to using research to support efforts to combat social inequality and advance reproductive justice globally.

This year in his opening remarks at the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for governments to “...recognize the key economic role of unpaid care work, with policies that support both mothers and fathers to take paid work outside the home,” noting the vital role that care work, particularly unpaid domestic care work, plays in the economy. Additionally, this year’s agenda issued by UN Women for International Women’s Day calls explicitly for a shift to “a green economy and a care society,” noting how this shift can make a major impact in reducing gender inequality globally. Further, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization, women make up the overwhelming majority (67%) of the global health and social care workforce.

A recent study by Oxfam found that if unpaid care work were valued at minimum wage, the annual global economic contribution of unpaid care work would be about US$10.8 trillion.”

At some point in our lives, all of us have benefited from parents, caregivers, friends, or loved ones who feed us, nurses and healthcare professionals who keep us and our loved ones healthy, and sanitation workers who keep our offices, schools, hospitals, and public spaces clean. We live in a world sustained by care work, yet care work has been and continues to be devalued by our economic system and in current social contracts. As our global economy continues to become more uneven, the trend of stratified reproduction continues to intensify and care workers globally become increasingly exploited as public institutions fail to fulfill people’s basic economic and social rights.

According to the International Labor Organization, care work is defined as “...consisting of activities and relations involved in meeting the physical, psychological and emotional needs of adults and children, old and young, frail and able-bodied.” Care work is a spectrum of paid and unpaid forms of labor, including housekeeping, childcare, domestic work, nursing, and any activities that contribute to the reproduction of society. Globally, care work is predominantly performed by women, particularly working class women of color and migrant workers, and the majority (76%) of unpaid care work is performed by women. Further, women from the Global South and women of color make up a disproportionate percentage of care workers globally.

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A recent study by Oxfam found that if unpaid care work were valued at minimum wage, the annual global economic contribution of unpaid care work would be about US$10.8 trillion. Additionally, the impact of care work is an important but under researched aspect of the fight against the climate crisis, and there is increasing attention paid to the role that environmental care work plays in sustaining social life and in combating the climate crisis. The material and social impacts of care work cannot be overstated, and as such it is imperative that civil society and political systems recognize care work as essential work vital to society and should be protected and compensated as such.

Given that women perform the majority of care work globally, scholars have found that the “feminization” of care work has resulted in a societal devaluation of any work classified as care. Additionally, care workers globally face varying degrees of sexual violence and barriers to their economic rights, such as the right to a fair wage and the right to decent work: for example, about 81% of domestic workers globally have no institutionalized social or workplace protections. Additionally, migrant care workers and workers of color face even greater precarity in this economy: migrant care workers and workers of color face gendered racism in their workplace and disparities in compensation relative to white care workers.

As a result, feminist social movements have fought against this devaluation and delegitimization of care work and strategically called for the recognition of care work as an integral part of society that requires fair compensation and social recognition. Specifically, feminist labor movements have been leading the fight for labor protections and the fulfillment of economic rights for care workers globally. For example, in India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has been successful in mobilizing care workers across India and organizing cooperatives for women who are childcare workers, home care workers, sanitation workers, and farmers. Additionally, in Jamaica, the formation of the Jamaica Household Workers Union has been instrumental in promoting the labor rights of domestic workers in Jamaica and making the importance of care work visible in Jamaican society.

Further, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance in the United States has mobilized domestic workers to organize for their rights as laborers and has created new pathways for political participation in electoral politics and policymaking around care work at various levels. These movements have been successful not only in raising awareness about the essential role of care work in society, but have also highlighted how the inequalities seen in the care economy are reflective of the larger structural inequalities that govern social life.

Linking care work and promoting sustainable livelihoods

Care work across societies has been integral to survival and the reproduction of society and, like the work of promoting sustainable livelihoods, relies on centering strong social ties and relationships within communities. Both understanding the value of care work and the need for sustainable livelihoods requires us to acknowledge the historical, political and social injustices of the global economy as well as the unequal power dynamics that shape social relations at all levels of society.

Existing scholarship defines livelihoods as encompassing “the skills, assets (both material and social) and the approaches which will be used by individuals and communities in order to survive.” Prior literature on livelihoods has historically been reduced to questions of economic decision-making and given particular privilege to the material outcomes of social actors (such as income, safe housing, and food security) rather than the political and social outcomes of livelihoods more broadly (such as access to political participation, legal rights and emotional well being).

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Despite the increased attention to care work and livelihoods that has emerged over the last 20 years, feminist scholars have pointed out that past scholarship has often failed to address the social and political dimensions of livelihoods both in research and in policies centered on livelihoods. As such, livelihoods and feminist scholars recommend taking a political economy approach to studying livelihoods and care so that the power relationships that structure the workforce, the state, and family life may be better accounted for. Further, this approach reveals the reality that care work, like all work, is inherently political, and as such is a site for upholding power hierarchies in social life and maintaining exploitative economies.

Counting care work and centering the value of care in social policies

In order to move towards a new eco-social contract, the recognition of care work as essential labor must coincide with policies and shifts in values around care work that challenge the gendered status quo and promote gender equity in all areas of social life. Data Civica, an organization based in Mexico focused on communicating data to the public and using rigorous data to advance social change, has used publicly available government data to create Tu Huella De Cuidados, a “care footprint calculator” for individuals to assess how much care work they are performing and benefiting from as well as the economic implications of care work on Mexican society.

In addition to the calculator, Alicia Franco and her colleagues at Data Civica also created social media campaign materials in order to encourage users to share their care footprint, begin dialogues in their social networks about the cost of care work, and promote support for policies in Mexico that substantively acknowledge the value of care. The goal of the project was to present already public data in an engaging and user-friendly digital platform to create awareness around the issue of care work, encourage individuals to engage with the topic of care work and how it shows up in their daily lives, and ultimately channel this engagement into political action, particularly advocating for a more balanced distribution of care work in Mexico.

...the longer that care work goes undervalued and taken for granted, the longer that sexist, racist, and classist barriers to accessing decent work, social security, and sustainable livelihoods will persist.”

The Gender Justice Programme at UNRISD has completed research on the role of care in ecofeminism and has plans to begin research on the relationship between care and climate change this year. Currently, UNRISD is working in collaboration with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Mujeres (INMUJERES) and the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College on a multi-phase project investigating time poverty in Mexico as it relates to unpaid care work, the distribution of household labor, access to employment, and trends in women’s labor force participation. The goal of the project is to inform the Mexican government’s strategy for implementing a public care system and, in the next phases of the project, to address time poverty, women’s employment, and the relationship between elderly people and public care.

These projects offer valuable insights into what is possible for measuring and evaluating care work in social life. More work like this is needed to create effective and holistic metrics for capturing the material and social impacts of care work on society, and it is essential that conversations about the importance of care work in sustaining life be normalized in public discourses. Further, as feminist research on the relationship between care work and other relevant global social problems such as the ongoing climate crisis and the intensification of the healthcare crisis in the wake of COVID-19 reveals, the longer that care work goes undervalued and taken for granted, the longer that sexist, racist, and classist barriers to accessing decent work, social security, and sustainable livelihoods will persist.

- Lauren Danielowski

This blog was published as part of our Global Research & Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract, a joint project with UN-RISD, supported by funds received from the European Union.

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