Why Investing In The Caring Economy Is The Way Forward
Over the past year, the term “essential worker” has become ubiquitous, appearing in front yards on thank-you signs, as well as in the media alongside calls for higher wages, paid sick leave and improved working conditions. The pandemic has thrown into relief the importance of individuals who have no choice but to show up to work each day, stocking shelves, caring for our children, and turning the daily gears of our economic life. Many of these workers form part of the “caring economy”, an economic sector which encompasses all the labour (paid and unpaid) which goes into providing social and material care for individuals in our society. This includes, but is not limited to: child and eldercare, care for those with disabilities, education, healthcare, and other forms of domestic labour. Just as the term essential worker helps to make visible the contributions and struggles of those on the frontlines of the pandemic, a focus on the caring economy sheds light on both the crisis of care in this country, and a pathway towards a more just future.
Care work is the foundation of societal well-being; it enables children to flourish and grow into healthy adults, it protects us at our most vulnerable, and it helps to ensure that everyone has a good quality of life. Despite this, care work is systemically devalued in our society. For example, in Ontario, long-term care homes have been progressively underfunded and privatized, putting profitability over quality care. This intensified the crisis in LTC over the past year, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc in facilities which were already under resourced and understaffed. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, licensed childcare providers in this country only have capacity for 27% of children ages 0-12 – the norm amongst OECD countries is 70%. Moreover, care workers tend to receive lower wages, fewer benefits and experience increased job precarity. This devaluation has its origins in gender inequality, as feminized labour (child care, domestic work) has long been labelled as lesser than and relegated to the private sphere. While women’s participation in the workforce has dramatically increased over the past century, professional care work is still largely dominated by women. For example, in Ontario, almost 90% of PSWs are women, as are 65% of hospital cleaners and 99% of early childhood educators. Outside of the workplace, Canadian women, on average, perform 2.5 more hours of unpaid, household care work each day than their male counterparts.
Not only is care work gendered, it is also racialized. Black and Indigenous women are over-represented in the lowest paying sectors of care work (home support work, housekeeping, and light duty cleaning). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, these positions also carry a high risk of infection, as they do not come with health insurance, paid sick leave, or access to proper PPE. Furthermore, racialized immigrant women often arrive in Canada as care givers, through government initiatives like the Live-in Care Giver (LCG) program. The LCG is meant to meet high demands for in-house caregiving by inviting women from other countries to take on caregiving positions with families in Canada. Ostensibly, the program puts participants on track to receive permanent residency if they complete the required number of employment hours within 48 months. However, because of the live-in condition, participants are rendered particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
The social value of care work, then, is intimately bound up with the status of women, in particular those who are racialized or migrant. Acknowledging the indispensable nature of care by stabilizing and bolstering the caring economy would improve the lives of millions of women and would help all members of society achieve a higher quality of life. This means improving the social status and security of caring professions, particularly those that are most precarious and low-paid. It means ensuring that wages are livable, workplaces are safe, and benefits are good. It would entail investing significant money and resources into childcare and long-term care and moving away from the privatization of these sectors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fact that inequality and precarity are some of the defining characteristics of our society, but we must believe that with crisis comes the opportunity to act together. It is clear that addressing the deficits in our caring economy will not only mean that we are all able to live healthier, more connected lives, but that visions of gender equality, as well as racial and migrant justice, will be closer to being realised.
-Lydia Mills, Blog Contributor