The invisible labour of women keeps our societies and economies going

Without care work, nothing works

The care economy is one of the most essential and indispensable sectors of society. Every form of capitalist society is founded on unequal relations. As Nancy Fraser puts it, it squeezes social capacities such as care work and processes of social reproduction to labour without pay. This results in a major crisis not just of “care” but of social reproduction as a whole:

“…capitalist societies separate social reproduction from economic production, associating the first with women, and obscuring its importance and value. Paradoxically, however, they make their official economies dependent on the very same processes of social reproduction whose value they disavow.”

Care work is all forms of labour that provide services to people such as child care and rearing, domestic work (eg. cooking, cleaning, taking care of the sick, taking care of the elderly, doing grocery), teaching, health care (eg. nurses, therapists, physicians): work that is disproportionately performed by women and feminised bodies whose identities are also met at the intersection of race, migration status, and class. Historically and culturally, work performed by women is not valued as economically relevant, more than often it is either unpaid, badly remunerated, or the object of systemic exploitation and not accounted for and rendered invisible in the economic discourse and in society as a whole.

Globally, women perform 76% of unpaid care work responsibilities. Though discussions regarding care work have become more mainstream, actual policies, laws, or even definitions have not come anywhere near to addressing the real-life implications of the matter. This has been a barrier towards women’s empowerment, independence, and participation in the paid labour market, making them extremely vulnerable to marginalisation, violence, economic migration and abuse.

Invisible labour keeps our societies and economies going

Invisible labour is an expression coined in 1987 that refers to unpaid work that is unacknowledged and as a result, is also unregulated economically, legally, and socially. Eventually, this term became synonymous with domestic work such as household labour and child-rearing for which women often, if not always, carry the brunt. Recently, a calculator was made to compute the value and cost of invisible labour which exposes the actual amount — both figuratively and financially — of the contributions women have shouldered despite its non-payment. In fact globally, women spend on average 4.1 hours per day on unpaid care work, with unpaid healthcare-related work amounting to $1.5 trillion, and with all types of care work considered, is worth $11 trillion.

Invisible labour has affected women’s well-being and as women have participated in the paid labour force and even climbed once unattainable ladders, studies continue to show that women still carry all the unpaid work as extra labour called “the second shift” once they get home.

This is on top of women being employed in more vulnerable or precarious jobs, and still earning less than men. Furthermore, discrimination, implicit biases, wage penalties, and many other factors contribute to the ongoing gender pay gap. In fact, in November 2020, women effectively started to work for free.

The gendered implications of COVID-19 show us how far we still are from a truly equitable and just society

Women’s work has been framed as a natural resource, making the pandemic’s impact fall disproportionately on them. Since the pandemic, disparities that used to be invisible are more evident. All the unpaid work that women have done in the shadows has been placed in the public eye showing how it has kept many sectors and economies afloat. COVID-19 has also exposed the various negative impacts women have suffered as stated in the UN report on Women.

According to the report, economic and social stress combined with movement restrictions intensified domestic violence. An incalculable number of women are trapped at home with no recourse towards healthcare systems and justice services: domestic violence calls increased by 25% in 2020. In addition, during this crisis, economic impacts hit women and girls harder which makes them less able to respond to economic shocks, the majority of job losses having in fact been suffered by women. With schools closing and lock-downs, this adds more work for women at home making them unable to take on paid work.

Globally, women comprise 70% of the health workforce, which makes them frontliners in the pandemic as midwives, caregivers, nurses, doctors, or community health workers; and yet they are still underrepresented in policy or decision-making processes that render them more vulnerable during this health crisis. On top of this, with healthcare facilities being overburdened, women and girls take on the role of taking care of the sick and elderly. Migrant women also become extremely vulnerable through intersecting political issues (class, race, gender, age), working as they do in sectors that are the hardest hit at the moment.

The mental load of women is also another issue exacerbated by the global crisis: cognitive related tasks such as remembering, overseeing, decision making, anticipation, planning, and management performed by women is often the most invisible of all labours, taken for granted yet bearing the full consequences for women’s inequality.

One thing is for sure, the coronavirus has pushed back decades worth of gains women have fought for towards equality.

Targeted actions towards addressing the care economy are needed

In order to address the inequality in unpaid care work, policies such as redistribution is one key to achieving women’s empowerment as well as better equitable outcomes for countries. Employers and states can also implement flexible work time and place, child care support or subsidies, maternity protection, parental or paternity leave, and other infrastructures that support family life. This is in recognition that, more often than not, workplaces and work cultures are designed around men who have stay-at-home partners or wives doing all the unpaid labour.

As a program of DiEM25, one of the Green New Deal for Europe (GNDE) policies recommends implementing a Care Income (CI) to compensate for care-related activities. This is in recognition of the value of care work in our societies and economies, and the importance of empowering marginalized sections of the population, especially women, that are exposed to violence, inequality, and abuse. By providing for a CI, it will help remedy structural disadvantages faced by women and other caregivers. The GNDE focuses on intersectional justice ensuring that no group of people is excluded from Europe’s transition.

Photo Source: Cedric Fauntleroy from Pexels.

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