Time to Care

Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis

Cover photo: Clarice Akinyi washes clothes in Mashimoni village, Nairobi, Kenya. Clarice is proud to be a domestic worker but was frustrated and angry at the bad treatment by employers. Clarice is now an active member of the Wezesha Jamii project, in which women work together to support each other and improve their community. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam (2017)

Economic inequality is out of control. In 2019 world’s billionaires - only 2,153 people - had more wealth than 4.6 billion people. This great divide is based on a flawed and sexist economic system that values the wealth of the privileged few, mostly men, more than the billions of hours of the most essential work – the unpaid and underpaid care work done primarily by women and girls around the world.

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KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

Oxfam is proposing the following six actions to help realize the rights of carers and to start closing the gap between unpaid and underpaid care workers and the wealthy elite, who have profited most from their labour.

1

Invest in national care systems to address the disproportionate responsibility for care work done by women and girls.

2

End extreme wealth to end extreme poverty.

3

Legislate to protect the rights of all carers and secure living wages for paid care workers.

4

Ensure that carers have influence on decision-making processes.

5

Challenge harmful norms and sexist beliefs.

6

Value care work in business policies and practices.

Invest in national care systems to address the disproportionate responsibility for care work done by women and girls.

End extreme wealth to end extreme poverty.

Legislate to protect the rights of all carers and secure living wages for paid care workers.

Ensure that carers have influence on decision-making processes.

Challenge harmful norms and sexist beliefs.

Value care in business policies and practices.

 

A woman rides a scooter through a low-income neighbourhood that is surrounded by upscale developments on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam (2017)

The view from the top: all pay and no work

The very top of the economic pyramid sees trillions of dollars of wealth in the hands of a very small group of people, predominantly men. Their wealth is already extreme, and our broken economy concentrates more and more wealth into these few hands.

Today’s extreme wealth is also founded on sexism. Our economic system was built by rich and powerful men, who continue to make the rules and reap the lion’s share of the benefit.

 

Lan works in a factory and two other jobs in Dong Nai province, Vietnam. Her low wages and high cost of living mean that she can’t afford for her children to live with her full time, and relies on her parents to take care of them while she is away working. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam (2017)

The view from the bottom: all work and no pay

Nearly half the world is trying to survive on $5.50 a day or less, according to new figures from the World Bank. Many people are just one hospital bill or failed harvest away from destitution. Inequality is one of the major reasons for this; a huge share of global income growth consistently accrues to those at the top, leaving those at the bottom further and further behind.

 

Shienna Cabus and her daughter collect water from a local water source in Eastern Samar, Philippines. They use a cart to transport the heavy load home. Shienna is a member of the Bangon Pangdan Self-Help Association. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/Oxfam (2017)

Understanding who cares

Care work is crucial to our societies and to the economy. It includes looking after children, elderly people, and those with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities, as well as daily domestic work like cooking, cleaning, washing, mending, and fetching water and firewood. Without someone investing time, effort and resources in these essential daily tasks, communities, workplaces, and whole economies would grind to a halt.

As well as doing care work for free at home, many poor women also work providing care for others, for example as domestic workers, who are among the most exploited workers in the world. Just 10% of domestic workers are covered by general labour laws to the same extent as other workers, and only around half enjoy equal minimum wage protection.

 

Catalina Sántiz puts firewood into the oven before cooking. Yocwitz, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Martiza Lavin

The looming care crisis

The world is facing a care crisis due to the impacts of an ageing population, cuts to public services and social protection systems, and the effects of climate change – threatening to make it worse and increase the burden on care workers.

Climate breakdown is already placing a greater burden on women. It is estimated that by 2025, up to 2.4 billion people will be living in areas without enough water, meaning women and girls will be forced to walk further and further to find it.

 

Lucas Aldana is a farmer who lives with his wife and children in Caparrosa, Guatemala. The family grows a variety of crops, but harvests have been affected by the lack of rainfall. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón (2019)

A fairer world is possible

Governments around the world can, and must, build a human economy that is feminist and benefits the 99%, not only the 1%. This world would be one where everyone has secure jobs paying decent wages, where nobody lives in fear of the cost of falling sick, and where every child has the chance to fulfil their potential. In this world, our economy would thrive within the limits of our planet, handing a better world to every new generation.

For decades, feminist economists, civil society and care advocates have been proposing a set of solutions to radically reprioritize care: the transformative ‘4Rs’ framework. These principles must be taken into account:

Caring

Recognize unpaid and poorly paid care work, which is done primarily by women and girls, as a type of work or production that has real value.

Time

Reduce the total number of hours spent on unpaid care tasks through better access to affordable and quality time-saving devices and care-supporting infrastructure.

Shift

Redistribute unpaid care work more fairly within the household and simultaneously shift the responsibility of unpaid care work to the state and the private sector.

Speak

Represent the most marginalized caregivers and ensure that they have a voice in the design and delivery of policies, services and systems that affect their lives.

Recognize unpaid and poorly paid care work, which is done primarily by women and girls, as a type of work or production that has real value.

Reduce the total number of hours spent on unpaid care tasks through better access to affordable and quality time-saving devices and care-supporting infrastructure.

Redistribute unpaid care work more fairly within the household and simultaneously shift the responsibility of unpaid care work to the state and the private sector.

Represent the most marginalized caregivers and ensure that they have a voice in the design and delivery of policies, services and systems that affect their lives.

MOVEMENTS FOR CHANGE, STORIES OF HOPE

Change is possible. From Engna Legna Besdet bringing together Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, to the Domestic Workers Rising campaign in South Africa, women are demanding change and claiming their rights.