Getting serious about supporting the care economy

Care work is vital to economies in general and India needs a strategy and action plan for better policies

Care work is vital to economies in general and India needs a strategy and action plan for better policies

Increased investment in healthcare services could create 300 million additional jobs worldwide, many of which are for women. This in turn will contribute to increasing female employment and promoting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 (promoting sustainable, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all).

Still ‘unseen’ by the policy

Every year, March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day. Women’s enormous contribution to all spheres of life is often overlooked, unfairly valued and barely rewarded. This is ‘particularly evident in care work — both paid and unpaid, which is crucial for the future of decent work. care work includes direct activities such as feeding a baby or caring for a sick partner, and indirect care activities such as cooking and cleaning’. Whether paid or unpaid, direct or indirect, care work is vital to human well-being and the economy. Unpaid care work is linked to inequalities in the labor market, but has not yet received sufficient attention in policy formulation. Paid caregivers, such as domestic workers and anganwadis in India, are also struggling to access rights and entitlements as employees.

The importance of care work is now widely recognized and covered in several international commitments, such as the SDGs and the Centennial Declaration of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Since March 2020, the demand for healthcare has increased enormously. However, investment in the healthcare economy has not kept pace. This year, in commemoration of International Women’s Day, the ILO released its new report entitled: ‘Care at work: investing in care leave and services for a more gender-equal world of work’† The ILO is the only tripartite UN agency that brings together governments, employers and workers from 187 Member States to set labor standards, develop policies and develop programs to promote decent work for all women and men.

Benefits down the line

The report highlights the importance of maternity, paternity and special care leave, which contribute to a work-life balance for women and men throughout their lives. In addition, it shows that workplaces that provide time, income security and space for care services such as breastfeeding enable positive nutritional and health outcomes.

Bridging the gaps in current policies and services to promote childcare and aged care will deliver the benefits of child development, dignified aging and independent living as the population ages, and will also provide more and better employment opportunities, especially for women.

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Maternity leave, childcare

Maternity leave is a universal human and labor right. Yet it remains unfulfilled in all countries, leaving millions of workers with family responsibilities without adequate protection and support. India outperforms its peers by offering 26 weeks of maternity leave, as opposed to the ILO’s standard 14-week mandate in 120 countries. However, this coverage extends to only a small proportion of female workers in formal employment in India, where 89% of employed women are in informal employment (as provided by ILOSTAT, or the ILO’s central portal for labor statistics). While paternity leave is recognized as a tool for both mothers and fathers to better reconcile work and family responsibilities, it is not provided in many countries, including India. Globally, the average paternity leave is nine days, further exacerbating inequality.

Access to quality and affordable care services such as childcare, aged care and care for people with disabilities is a challenge faced by workers with family responsibilities worldwide. While India has a long history of mandating crèches in factories and establishments, there is limited information on their actual implementation. There is room for improvement in availability, accessibility, affordability and quality. The working conditions of caregivers are another critical gap that needs to be addressed. Although childcare and anganwadi workers do important work, and childcare is recognized as professional work in advanced countries, they are not recognized as employees and have no requisite access to workers’ rights and entitlements in India.

Domestic workers, on whom Indian households rely heavily, also face challenges in getting decent work. They became AD hoc healthcare providers during the novel coronavirus pandemic without adequate social or health protection measures. According to government estimates for 2019, 26 lakh of the 39 lakh domestic workers in India are women. While major developments have extended formal coverage to domestic workers in India, such as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work (Prevention, Prohibition and Restoration) Act and the minimum wage in many states, more efforts are needed to ensure decent work for them. . Recognizing caregivers and promoting decent work for all, including domestic workers and childcare, are also necessary for India to achieve the SDGs which have the principle of ‘leave no one behind’. They, like all workers, should enjoy basic human and worker rights and have access to fair wages, a workplace free of violence and harassment, good working conditions and access to social protection, among other benefits.

See it as public good

India spends less than 1% of its GDP on the care economy; increasing this percentage would bring a plethora of benefits to workers and the economy as a whole. Therefore, the government, in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organizations and the relevant stakeholders, should draw up a strategy and action plan for improved care policies, care facilities and decent working conditions for care workers. The ILO proposes a 5R framework for decent care work, centered on gender equality. The framework calls for the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work, promotes rewarding care workers with more and decent work and enables their representation in social dialogue and collective bargaining. Care work should be seen as a collective responsibility and a public good.

A people-centered and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that benefits workers, employers and government requires greater investment and commitment to support the care economy, which cares for society as a whole.

Dagmar Walter is the Director, International Labor Organization, Decent Work Technical Support Team (DWT) for South Asia and Country Office for India

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