EWL in the media

The real invisible hand: women and the need for a care economy

EWL Vice President Ana Sofia Fernandes comments on the care economy for the Progressive Post.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed lingering disparities in wages, pensions, levels of poverty, and household responsibilities between women and men. At the same time, it has highlighted the vital importance of care work – much of which is performed by women – in our societies. How can we address this imbalance?

Women have kept our societies functioning during the pandemic, exceeding what they have always done, but with scant social recognition and appreciation. They are the majority of health and care professionals, providing care to the sick, the elderly, to people with disabilities and special needs. They are providing care at home during lockdowns, replacing education and health professionals, while all the time trying to reconcile this unpaid work with their own professional responsibilities. They are securing our food chains, given that they form the majority of workers in supermarkets and food distribution services. And they are ensuring a safe environment, often at the expense of their own health and that of their families, given that they represent the overwhelming majority of workers in the cleaning and hygiene industry. On top of this, they are providing support and comfort to groups who are experiencing particular distress and suffering because of the pandemic: female victims of intimate partner violence, homeless women, elderly women, undocumented women.

In short, women are the invisible hand holding our society together.

Although women have always shouldered most caregiving responsibilities, they are often the least valued and worst-paid workers in sectors without which, as we have now come to realise, our societies and economies would simply collapse.

Unlike the 2008 crisis, the pandemic has affected industries where women are overrepresented. Women are thus at greater risk of losing their jobs, income, and economic independence. The post-Covid-19 period is therefore a crucial moment to acknowledge the contribution of women to the economy, and to value care work as a foundational pillar of society. We need a Care Pact to avoid some of the disastrous consequences of the pandemic and to chart a path forward. A Care Pact, articulated with the Green and Digital transitions, would forge a virtuous circle promoting the sustainability of society and the planet.

This pandemic has demonstrated that care is a collective need that requires collective responsibility and a life cycle perspective encompassing childcare, care for the elderly, care for dependents, and care for ourselves. A Care Pact would provide a coherent framework for addressing these needs, with the added advantage of reminding us that investment is never gender neutral. The living conditions, the needs and baseline situation of women and men are different, and they are differently affected by this crisis. By failing to address these differences and designing one-size-fits-all, male-biased public policies, and investments – for example, by choosing to invest mainly in sectors where men are the majority of workers – may have the unintended consequence of worsening inequalities between women and men.

A Care Pact should also articulate all policies that seek to promote social cohesion and equality between women and men. Such policies include those resulting from the future action plan for the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, and in particular, principles 9 (Work-life balance), 11 (Childcare and support to children), 16 (Healthcare) and 18 (Long-term care). They also include promoting properly remunerated and legally protected jobs in the care sector, where there is an enormous potential for job creation.

As this pandemic has shown, care is the backbone of society. It has kept society moving when everything stopped. It is the real invisible hand that keeps the economy going. Invisible, undervalued, unaccounted for, and poorly paid. It is time to change this paradigm. It is time to ’care for the future’, to quote the title of a visionary report chaired by Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo in 1998 for the UN Independent Commission on Population and Quality of Life. It is time to build back better, leaving no one behind, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations has repeatedly urged.

In short, it is time to recognise that care work is at the core of our societies and to remunerate it accordingly. After all, caring and being cared for are a fundamental part of being human.

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