One of the more interesting conversations I had in New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78) this week surrounded the care economy. This economic framework recognises and values the contributions of unpaid care work and the importance of investing in care-related sectors and services. It emphasises providing care and support for individuals, families, and communities.
Oxfam International says, "Care work is the 'hidden engine' that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies turning."
Women and girls currently and have traditionally carried out care work, which consumes most of their time on childcare, eldercare, and domestic activities, preventing many of them from getting an education and working to earn a livable wage. This leaves them confined to the bottom of the economy in poverty, often invisible and undervalued in our formal economic systems because their hours spent are not quantified for compensation or regarded as formal employment but rather a personal responsibility. This reality is widely considered as brutally unfair to our women.
The fact is that women and girls shoulder three-quarters of unpaid care work globally, which amounts to 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work daily. If valued at minimum wage, their labour would represent, at a minimum, a US$10.8-trillion annual contribution to the global economy — more than three times the size of the worldwide technology industry. (Oxfam International)
In low-income countries, rural women may spend up to 14 hours per day attending to care for their children and other elderly relatives, approximately 42 per cent are unable to get a job because of these activities versus six per cent of men.
Furthermore, 80 per cent of the world's 67 million domestic workers are women, more than half of them have unlimited weekly working hours, and 60.3 million do not have access to social security.
The novel coronavirus pandemic blatantly exposed and loudly amplified the importance of care for our society and economy while demonstrating how fragile the care sector is. Unpaid care responsibilities were identified in the International Labour Organization's surveys as a critical barrier to engaging in paid work. Therefore, the concept of the care economy seeks to address these inequities by, first, acknowledging the economic and social significance of care work and then stressing the need for dedicated policies, investments, and social structures that support and value care activities.
These policies can include affordable and accessible childcare, paid parental leave, flexible work arrangements, social protection for caregivers, and investments in health care and education.
The public provision of care, directly and indirectly, advances several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; namely, eradicating poverty, promoting good health and well-being, providing a quality education for all, universal gender equality, decent work and economic growth, reducing inequalities, and sustainable cities and communities.
While various initiatives and policies in some countries aim to address elements of the care economy, such as paid family leave, affordable childcare, and social welfare programmes, these efforts are often implemented at the national or regional level rather than in specific districts and communities.
As such, advocates of the care economy argue that by recognising and supporting care work, multiple benefits will be added to the society, including gender equality, improved well-being of individuals and families, enhanced social cohesion, and sustainable economic development.
By valuing care and investing in care-related sectors, societies can build more inclusive and equitable economies that prioritise the well-being of all its citizens. For example, the 2020 technical bulletin published that the care economy would equal around 20 per cent of Columbia's gross domestic product (GDP), which in 2014 surpassed US$380 billion above their financial and agricultural sectors in the gross product ranking. (The World Economic Forum)
Therefore, caregiving should be viewed as part of the formal economy with labour protections and standards, and governments must invest in public care systems to ensure accessibility, affordability, quality, and decent working conditions for care workers.
Canada became the first donor Government in the world to commit dedicated funding for standalone programming to address issues around paid and unpaid care in low- and middle-income countries at the Generation Equality Forum in June 2021. The Canadian Government has made progress investing in and building a care economy — from efforts to transform the global care economy through the Global Alliance for Care to the historic $30-billion investment in building a national childcare system in Canada in 2021. (APCO 2023)
Mexico has also been a pioneering force in the visibility of care work. In 2002 it implemented the National Survey on the 'Use of Time' (ENUT) to capture the time women and men dedicate to caregiving activities. Mexico has also developed two instruments from the survey to highlight the economic contribution of care work to the GDP — (1) the Simulator of the Economic Value of Domestic and Care Work and (2) the Economic Information Bank.
These efforts created and implemented the National Survey for the Care System (ENASIC) in 2022 to show how and who performed care work in the country.
As co-chair of the Global Alliance for Care, Mexico also had a vital role in organising the Global Grassroots Women Community Caregivers Summit, which took place from June 28-30, 2023, in Mexico City. This gathering provided a solid platform which facilitated conversations between community caregivers, the United Nations system, civil society organisations, governments, philanthropic institutions, and academics. The dialogue resulted in a call to action with a broad series of measures to distinguish caregiving work and promote optimal working conditions for caregivers. (APCO 2023)
Through these efforts and the hard work of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), on July 24, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution for the International Day for Care and Support on October 29 in recognition and testament to the work done by carers and unions to promote the care agenda. It is a significant step forward for women, carers, those they care for, and society.
Care, especially childcare in Jamaica, occupies my mind constantly. Oftentimes I agonise over who helps the 'helpers' children when she is helping someone else's. Or how perplexing it is for a parent with a child with a disability in Jamaica. Yet, many 'haves' fail to empathise with the hellish daily realities of 'the have-nots' at our society's margins.
Undoubtedly, many of us as Jamaican women would never have the educational or other freedoms we enjoy if we had no options for our childcare or the elderly care of our relatives. In Jamaica, single-parent households account for approximately 41 per cent of Jamaican families. (Cambridge University Press, 2018) Most of these households are headed by low-income women and need additional help to care for their children and afford childcare services.
The cost of childcare has been a shackle for too many of our people. If we say we are a progressive country, let us critically evaluate how we CARE for our people.
It is time to provide and regulate childcare for single parents publicly, re-evaluate our budgets, and provide incentives to corporate Jamaica to help low-income families balance working, attending school, and caring for their children. If we do this, the benefits to our country will be positive and transformative.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.