Rukmini is 38. Since the age of 19 when she was married, her day begins before dawn helping her aged mother-in-law to the outdoor toilet. Every day seems the same to her. Earlier she had to send her children to school now she sends them to college. Though she works from dawn to dusk, taking care of the household, her aged in-laws and children, she is often belittled by her husband and sisters-in-law for being ‘just a housewife’.
Like Rukmini many unpaid care workers remain unacknowledged. Their invaluable contribution to the community remains unrecognised and undervalued.
Unpaid care work includes those services and production of goods that does not result in a payment. From cooking a meal, to cleaning, caring for the young and elderly, care work can include a wide range of activities. Care work is differentiated from leisure on the basis of a third-person principle. Care work can be designated to a third person for appropriate payment while leisure activities are those that gives individual satisfaction and cannot be transferred from one to another. Designating care work to the third person requires resources and is a luxury that cannot be afforded by all. Existing research indicates women performing an almost disproportionate amount of unpaid care work all over the world in both developed and developing economies. Interestingly, women engaged in the same amount of paid work as their male counterparts also make a significant contribution to unpaid care work (OECD, 2012). Gender stereotypes are found to reinforce female participation in unpaid care work, while this is to be taken into account, care work is to be valued despite the care workers’ gender.
In the recent years, international frameworks and social policy initiatives point to unpaid care work and the need for more comprehensive sex disaggregated data. From the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action that identified the large-scale women only participation of unpaid care work as detrimental to gender equity to the more recent Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 61) that points to the trends leading to women workers being identified as the bottom of the global value chain. Besides numerous UN Conventions aimed at protecting the rights of unpaid care workers, the protection of unpaid care workers are included in the International Labour Organisation’s labour standards, specifically, the ILO Convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities, ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers to mention a few. It is imperative to lobby governments to ratify the existing conventions and formulate social policies that identify and value unpaid care work.
While international frameworks offer the guidelines to help formalize unpaid care work, unpaid care work in itself can be valued practically only by re-evaluating and re-framing societal perceptions. The UN Women’s Progress of the World’s Women Report identifies “domestic work (as work that) makes all other work possible”. Caregivers, unpaid and paid, domestic workers et al are crucial supporters of national and global economies. Among the development models The Three R’s of Unpaid Work: Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution, presented at the Expert Group Meeting on Unpaid Work, Economic Development and Human Well-Being, United Nations Development Programme (Elson, Diane 2008) points to a three fold approach through which unpaid care work can be assigned the value that is its prerogative. In this approach recognition involves the acknowledgement and visibility of the work done by care workers. Institutionally and individually it is important to assess the amount of work involved and its beneficiaries. Policy makers must include care work in their development agenda and statistics. Researchers must ensure that assessment on care work includes qualitative, quantitative and sex-disaggregated data. Individually it is important to offer monetary and other required forms of compensation to the care worker this includes assuring social security and health benefits.
The next two steps - reduction and redistribution are not mutually exclusive. Reduction involves reducing the burdening with the sole responsibility of care to one individual. Gender stereotypes often place these responsibilities on women and girls. For example, school going girls are expected to offer a hand with housework while their male siblings are not expected to do so. Better infrastructure and technology can also help ease care work. For example, easy access to water means less time is spent walking long distances to fetch water. The time saved from performing these tasks can be utilized by women and girls to pursue other activities. Introducing and subsidizing child/elder care service centres can also lend a hand in easing pressure. Redistribution is possible through conscious effort at the individual and societal level. Sharing responsibilities among all genders and members of a community is the first-step process in redistributing care work. This will add value to the existing work while reducing the burden on the regular caregiver.
Unpaid care work is a crucial feature that assists in the smooth running of our economies, social order and family lives (not necessarily in that order). From stay-at-home mothers/fathers/uncles/aunts, grandparents who take care of grand children, children who take care of the elders in the family, individuals who care for the sick, siblings who take up the responsibility of caring for their siblings due to absent adult figures to young girls who prioritize housework over homework there is no shortage for the forms in which our lives are touched by the presence of caregivers, it is time this crucial participation is appreciated.
Elson, Diane (2008) The Three R’s of Unpaid Work: Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution, presented at the Expert Group Meeting on Unpaid Work, Economic Development and Human Well-Being, United Nations Development Programme.
OECD (2012), Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OECD Publishing.