Care work still disproportionately falls on women and directly impacts their access to the labour market, their earnings, productivity, and career progression. It is crucial that we address this double burden if we are to make progress on gender equality.
At one point or another, we rely on nurses, cooks, teachers, cleaners, therapists, or our mothers. The irony is that these care workers – whether as unpaid family members at home, or workers in formal and informal economies – are also often the ones most unable to receive the quality care they too deserve. Moreover, their working conditions and pay reflect that their work is too often seen as less valuable. Our policies must protect our care workers from such injustices. Only then will we be able to ensure that everyone – most of all the care workers themselves – gets the quality care they need and deserve.
The animation film "Dignity and recognition for care workers in Asia" and the recommendations for better care work in the region were developed over the past year by feminist scholars and partners from Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand as part of the FES regional project "Women and the Future of Work in Asia”.
5 Rs: Framing care work as decent work
Recognize, Reduce and Redistribute unpaid care work; Reward paid care work, by promoting more and decent work for care workers; and guarantee care workers’ Representation, social dialogue and collective bargaining.
The 5R Framework for Decent Care Work is a good place to start as it has been affirmed by care workers themselves. It emphasizes the rights of care workers as workers and thus their legitimate part in society. For men and other privileged groups to take more part in care work, as well for the state to provide better care services, would furthermore be a powerful indicator of care work being valued. But until now, the realization of the 5Rs is uneven at best. For instance, in the Philippines, domestic workers are by law entitled to social benefits; and yet, such law is faced with implementation challenges. In India, the domestic work sector is still poorly regulated and there are few protections and safety nets that workers can fall back on.
Improving the value of care work
Many governments currently categorise care work as unskilled and low-skilled work, making it highly undervalued and poorly paid. However, the work performed by care workers is far from unskilled or low skilled. We need to break out of these categorisations and start to value care work more. Additionally, the ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention (C189) would be a crucial step for all Asian countries, as is proposed by many labour groups themselves. Public sensitization for the economy of care should be prioritized, showing that everyone is somehow involved or affected by the status of care work and workers.
Care work recognized as essential amid the pandemic
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed who the truly essential workers are. The majority are those who are usually seen as low or unskilled. Additionally, with school closures and social distancing rules, the importance of childcare came into the spotlight. This is the time to push for reforms in the care sector. The crisis also revealed how inadequate a lot of systems and institutions are. We cannot just go back to that.
We must take a multi-faceted approach to this and work across regions and institutions. Care has always held families and communities together, and even more so during this pandemic. Sustaining this momentum will require keeping more people engaged on the one hand and pushing policymakers for concrete changes on the other. We also need to push for gender-equal responses to COVID -19 to ensure that women are not disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Leadership models based on feminist values – such as that of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – make a strong case for a better 'new normal.’ At such a moment when old systems are proving themselves ineffective and people are looking for change, a new normal that promotes values of care and sustaining human lives might just push through.
Zothan Mawii and Rowena Laguilles-Timog are members of the working group on the economy of care as part of the regional FES project “Women and the future of work in Asia”.
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