The pandemic has highlighted just how vital care workers are to society. But the people who work in this sector have been neglected for too long. It is time politicians realised that care and care work must be central to post-pandemic recovery plans. Not just because it is the caring thing to do – but because it makes economic sense too.
Data from the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) supports a care-led recovery. The WBG is an independent, not-for-profit membership network consisting of women’s voluntary organisations, academics and policy experts campaigning for a gender equal economy. Its data shows that investment in a Scandinavian-style care system (which invests far more public money in the sector) would create more than two million jobs – 2.7 times as many jobs as an equivalent investment in construction.
The understanding of the importance of care has become central to the work of many feminists and it is a key aspect of my own research. Yet it still seems alien to most mainstream, non-feminist economic and political thinking, which cannot seem to see beyond the economic boosts promised by so-called “shovel-ready” construction projects. Indeed, the government’s “Build Back Better” plan for growth talks about infrastructure – mentioning broadband, roads, railways and cities – but does not mention care anywhere.
But there are signs of change. The “American Rescue Plan” announced recently by the US president, Joe Biden, both defines care as part of the country’s infrastructure and promises major investments in the sector.
The experience of lockdown in the UK has increased public awareness of the importance of care work. But this type of work is still disproportionately provided by women, either in the home without pay or as a form of precarious and badly paid employment such as social care work.
During lockdown, people saw that many employees couldn’t go to work when childcare suddenly became unavailable. Many parents who had to work from home realised that looking after children involved hard work which is both time-consuming and energy-sapping. And many who clapped for the carers risking their lives felt that this should have led to a pay rise.
A double crisis
But amid this new recognition, there is a crisis in care provision. This predates the pandemic and affects both unpaid and paid care work. Unpaid care is in crisis because people can’t do two things at once and unpaid care is economically invisible. This means that someone who works hard to raise a family or care for vulnerable adults is often deemed “economically inactive” and available for employment.
Conditions of employment, particularly the long-hours working culture which involves British employees working on average 10 hours more than their contracted work times, often make it difficult to combine a job with domestic responsibilities. Although there has been some limited progress towards more family-friendly conditions, such as maternity and paternity leave and the right to request flexible working, a successful career still requires long hours in the workplace and many workers are juggling several badly paid, precarious, part-time jobs.
The result, particularly for employed mothers of young children, is acute “time poverty”, stress and guilt. The time-is-money, efficiency-maximising calculations of the workplace clash with the intangible values of patience, compassion and love that good care requires.
Paid care in the UK is also in crisis because the need for it greatly outstrips supply and because good-quality care (by people who are properly trained, treated and paid) cannot be both affordable and profitable. Without adequate public funding, many providers are going out of business, others are delivering sub-standard services and care needs are increasingly unmet.
Radical shift in thinking
These interconnected care crises are not insoluble but they require some radical rethinking, based on the experiences of those involved. Unpaid carers need practical support, such as Sure Start children’s centres, which provide help and advice for parents of young children, or respite care.
Meanwhile the benefits system should stop penalising carers for the essential, time-consuming work they do by, for example, cutting payments to lone parents who miss a job interview because they have no childcare.
Many family carers also want paid work and employment conditions to be reformed to recognise that “normal” workers have responsibilities outside the workplace and that they shouldn’t have to sacrifice their career to meet these.
Reforms could include a much shorter standard working week, more flexible working hours, better rights for part-time workers, opportunities to work from home and extensive family/parental leave provision that both men and women are encouraged to use.
Pay and conditions in the sector also need to be reformed to recognise the importance of care work, the skills required of it, the time it takes to provide it well and the need to make it an attractive career for men as well as women. For this to happen, access to good-quality care should – like healthcare – be seen as a collective responsibility and a right, not primarily as a source of profit. As such, it requires a major increase in public investment.
Care is also a very green form of employment that meets essential human needs without generating lots of pollution. Good childcare also involves caring about the future of the planet and teaching children the need to care for the environment.
Feminists today are not entirely outside the decision-making processes, and ideas that were widely opposed a generation ago – such as state support for childcare expenses – are now mainstream. It may be that the time has finally come for a “care-led recovery”. Building a stronger economy and solving the care crisis can – and should – go hand in hand.