Cherishing All Equally 2020: inequality and the care economy


Introduction by Robert Sweeney

This is an extract from read the full paper at this link.

The crisis that currently besets the continent of Europe and, indeed, most of the world, is the most profound in living memory. It is at once a public health, a political, a social, and an economic crisis. Its reach is long and its effect likely to be lasting. Our ability to travel, socialize and, for most of us, work has been drastically curtailed. Basic human needs are not being met, the long-term consequences of which will play out in the coming years. 

The spread of COVID-19 in early 2020 constituted a sudden shock to our way of life. However, a less violent eruption, but with stakes no lower, has been bubbling below the surface for several years, centuries in fact. The fight for gender justice has and is, being waged on several fronts. Includes increasing demands for political representation, cultural rights, and for access to and control over economic resources. Many questions are raised by these demands, the answers to which are difficult.

One area where the current crisis meets gender inequalities is in the arena of care work. Many forms of work have stopped, or are being increasingly done from home. Care work, however, can never be suspended, and it cannot be online. An essential component of care is that it requires human interaction and takes time. It cannot and should not be automated. Care workers are therefore at the front line putting their health and lives at risk for the sake of others. Yet care work is often–outside of the medical professions–poorly paid and precarious.

Just as paid care work gets little recognition, unpaid care work is even less celebrated. Care work in the domestic sphere takes many forms including the care and raising of children, care of the disabled and the elderly. Many ancillary activities support direct care, such as the preparation of meals. Domestic labour has a clear impact on the well-being of others, despite the lack of recognition it receives. Yet society is such that more focus on domestic and care work means less time participating in political and economic life. It renders unpaid carers dependent on others for economic resources and political representation. But without care and domestic work, there can be no political and economic life. 

The solution to such a conundrum seems clear – more participation of women in economic and political life, and more participation of men in domestic and caring labour. Indeed, when both paid and unpaid labour are considered, women do more work than men in every EU country. There is clearly scope for men to do more care. The converse is less obvious – equal representation of men and women in political life is obviously needed, but what about women doing more paid work? Is an expansion of the female labour force participation rate desirable in all countries, if it is effectively making low-income and working-class women do more paid wprk? And if men and women have different preferences for allocating their time, how should social policy be designed? 

FEPS and TASC have partnered together to address some of these questions. The Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), has been at the forefront of research and policy advice on inequality at the EU level, including gender inequality. TASC has focused on similar research in Ireland. The Irish system of care is not only quite different to the benchmark Nordic model but also provides a contrast to the experiences of most other European countries. 

So what is the relationship between inequality and the care economy? The first chapter addresses this question in the context of the EU. It explores how different systems of care provision generate economic inequalities between men and women; why care work tends to be poorly paid and examines the job quality of care work. It looks at the work-life preferences of men and women, and what policy interventions are needed to reconcile gender equality with balanced lives. The relationship between care provision and the gender distribution of economic resources is complex. Countries with expansive, publicly-funded systems of care tend to have lower overall earnings differences between the sexes as more women are employed. However, the hourly difference in pay – the gender pay gap – tends to be higher in those countries as well, as care and public sector employment tend to be less well-paid. There are a variety of factors which lead to care work being poorly paid. As a time and labour intensive face-to-face service, it does not lend itself to productivity increases, the basis for higher wages. So long as care is commodified, pay and conditions will be poor. Both men and women desire to do less paid work and devote more time to their families, with men preferring to allocate more time to paid work than women. A variety of interventions are necessary to realise preferences for work-life balance and reconcile them with gender equality. For instance, workplaces need to facilitate combining part-time work and care needs, so that time devoted to unpaid labour does not come at the expense of paid work. 

The Irish example is interesting for its reliance on unpaid care work. No othe country in Europe, it seems, is more reliant on unpaid labour than Ireland. If unpaid labour is so important, does this come at the expense of valuing paid care work? How does such a system perpetuate itself, and is it sustainable? These are the questions addressed in the second chapter, which looks at Ireland’s carers: who they are and how they are valued.

The second chapter finds that Ireland devotes significant resources to facilitate its high levels of unpaid care work. Its welfare system is heavily reliant on transfers and it invests comparatively little in services. Most of Ireland’s unpaid care work is done by women, and lower income groups do somewhat more as well. With resources weighted towards transfers over services, less is invested in paid care work. Unsurprisingly, then, the pay and conditions of early years and adult care workers are low. Despite this, care services are often unaffordable, wich leads to reliance on informal and migrant labour. The trend toward privatisation will do little to improve this. Higher levels of public funding are necessary to improve pay and conditions of care workers and to facilitate access to paid work for carers.

The picture emerging from this report is multifaceted. Public provision of care helps alter the distribution of work in society and enables women to participate in economic and political life but it does not eradicate the decision on how to allocate one’s limited time between paid work, family, and public life. It provides women with economic autonomy but, in aggregate, increases the gender pay gap. Societies and workplaces must come to terms with these facts. They must facilitate families both to care and do paid work. They must also devote more resources so that paid care work actually pays. It is not clear what type of societies will emerge once the global pandemic is over. It is our hope that care work continues to receive the attention it has had recently and, at long last, begins to be properly valued.

visit FEPS website
visit TASC website