Care work, from burden and invisible, to value added and an attractive economy sector

75% of all the unpaid care work in the world is performed by women

Interview with Bharati Sadasivam, Team Leader, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub   

UN Magazine: What is the care economy and why is it important to tackle it?

Bharati Sadasivam: The care economy consists of the types of services that are given for the wellbeing of people in the household – children, elderly, the sick and people with disabilities and also healthy working adults. They can be direct care services, like those provided to children, the elderly, the disabled or the sick, and indirect services, like domestic chores of washing, cleaning, shopping, bringing firewood, collecting water, cooking. Together they represent a whole body of work that is caring labour for current and future generations.

Care work can be paid as it is when done by care workers, preschool teachers, healthcare professionals or domestic servants.

When care work is performed at home it’s almost always invisible – meaning it is not counted in the country’s growth or GDP[i]. But it’s obviously extremely important for the future of societies and human wellbeing. Care work sustains the workforce, sustains families to become productive, sustains people in the economy and in the society. We need to understand that 75% of all the unpaid care work in the world is performed by women. This limits enormously their ability to enter the labour force and have careers and incomes, to have opportunities and freedom of choice for growth and personal development or to even have recreation and leisure.  

So, unless we tackle the imbalanced way in which we address care work, both society and the economy will suffer.

UN Magazine: You said women perform 75% of care work and therefore they have fewer opportunities. How does unpaid work affect specifically women?

Bharati Sadasivam: Let’s talk about Moldova, where you still have a very long maternity leave, while men only recently have been given two weeks of optional paternity leave. So, in Moldova the paid parental leave is three years, but in much of cases, around 90%, is taken by women. If women are lucky and they work in sectors where they are needed and their skills are not eroded, after three years they can re-enter the work force. But if you have two children and you are not working for 6 years, then it can affect your ability to get back into the labour market while at the same time being mainly responsible for raising your children and taking care of the household. This is one reason why the way we design and implement family leave and care services is an important issue for women. But it also affects whole families, because it promotes the idea that only women should take care of children and fathers have no role in it. This idea is damaging for the child as well, because it’s very important for children not to see their parents in such ‘gender roles’ and to have a connection and receive care from both parents.

UN Magazine: How can we improve things specifically in Moldova, what are your recommendations because there are of course women who would like, for example, to stay home for three years and benefit from social allocations?

Bharati Sadasivam: This is a very sensitive issue, which we understand needs to be approached carefully, by establishing a dialogue with families, with communities, and women in particular. We must talk to all concerned to understand what the real needs are and to explain to everybody involved that any attempt to amend existing legislation is not aimed at taking away their benefits, but to expand their opportunities.

There is already a discussion within Government about the very little coverage of childcare services between the ages of 0 and 3 years old, which is also shown by research. In Moldova, the childcare services for this age spectrum covers only 10% of population in rural areas and only about 60% in urban areas, which is far below OECD averages.

So, to address the issue of women being out of the work force for so long, you will need to address things simultaneously – parental leave to have shorter leave time for women must go with expanded opportunities for childcare services. If you want to reduce the time that’s paid for parental leave, you should offer a choice of services for childcare. Obviously, some women will want social allocations and to stay home, but it is important to offer everybody a choice.

What UNDP with the rest of the UN and civil society organizations in Moldova have been advocating with the Government is that services provided for children and the elderly need to be improved and to raise the level of service providers. Service providers should be trained to deliver skilled and quality services so that the care sector as a whole becomes a sector that both men and women find attractive as an employer.  

At the same time, there is a need for a lot of advocacy and education among men and women, so that they see the opportunities, benefits and costs that women experience by being out of the labour market.

UN Magazine: You said that one of the solutions is the development of public services for children aged 0 to 3 years. Is this an investment for the Government or the private sector?  

Bharati Sadasivam: It’s certainly an area where a lot of actors are involved. As research shows, public spending on the care sector is really an investment. Not just for the reasons of personal and human development of women, but also because of the great importance of having children socialize at a very young age. We supported research in Turkey, conducted by the Istanbul Technical University, with a policy simulation concerning the impact on investing a certain amount of money in the care sector versus investing the same amount of money in a hard infrastructure sector like construction. And they found that investing in the care sector generates 2.5 times the number of jobs that you generate in the construction sector. In addition, and this is very important, these jobs are “decent jobs”, which means they provide benefits and security, and provide long-term employment to the people. Of course, a lot of these jobs can go to women, but it also generates jobs for men. Because when you set up a childcare facility, for example, you will need to set up a lot of back up services like food, clothing, toys and whatever else you need for this center. So, it will generate employment in other types of industries, that will attract both men and women.

UN Magazine: How consistent should be the financial effort of the government of Moldova to launch new social services in order to address the care economy?

Bharati Sadasivam: I would say that quite a lot have been done already, so it is not going to cost a lot to change the policy. For example, the Government might want to consider whether it is possible to extend the two weeks of paid paternity leave to at least three or six months and make it fully paid to incentivize men to take it. In the long term, it will pay off, because women will be able to share the household duties with their husbands and to benefit from career opportunities.  By having this arrangement, you will rise the GDP as a whole, because both men and women will have the opportunity to return to their jobs.  

Regarding other types of investments, for example care services or expanding the kindergarten level, there will be some funding involved, but you do not have to invest all the money at one time.

UN Magazine: How is Moldova situated compared to other countries in the region?

Bharati Sadasivam: When you compare with the region, Moldova is not doing so badly, but you have many disparities between urban and rural areas. You also have wage gaps and a lot of gender segregation in the market, mainly due to women’s care work burdens. There are also widening gaps in terms of returning late to the labor force after maternity leave and being put into sectors which don’t pay very well.

We find that in all our activities, in all countries, across all regions, we always push for women’s economic empowerment, we always say that there should be more jobs and women should come into the labor force, women should start working, generate incomes, become entrepreneurs.

But women’s work time is not infinite. You cannot keep pushing women to come into the labour force and generate income and be economic providers, unless you address their care work and redistribute it among families, the state and societies. Otherwise, women are going to do much more unpaid work in parallel with the paid work, which is what is happening in this region and most parts of the world. Without addressing the care aspect, we are not going to free women to reach an economic potential.

The issue of caring about care work has become urgent in the era of the global United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, because there is a specific target to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work by 2030. By addressing care work you can address a number of other goals – related to employment, poverty, education, inequalities, and of course gender equality. We see care work as a lever, as a key that unlocks a lot of potential. in all areas of human development. This is why we are advocating for greater policy attention to care work, as the basis for a country’s human development and inclusive economic growth.

* 41% of total global work hours is spent on unpaid care work;76% of this unpaid work is performed by women vs. only; 36% of total paid work time performed by women; women’s unpaid weekly workload exceeds 3 times that of men. (Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2015; Charmes 2015)