What is ‘care work’?

Caring for our children and our parents might not seem like an economic act but the way we organise care work has a huge impact on the economyEveryone at some point needs care, and most people will have to provide care work at some point in their life. 

Care work can be paid or unpaid. Unpaid care work mainly takes place in the home and is predominantly done by women. Around the world, women spend two to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men, which has a big effect on gender inequality in the economy. In countries where women do more unpaid care work, they are much less likely to be earning money and if they are working, are more likely to be in vulnerable and part time work.¹ The higher the unpaid labor that women do, the greater the gender pay gap, which is the difference between how much more men are paid than women on average.  

Care work doesn’t necessarily have to be unpaid - in most countries there are market and government run caring economies, with paid workers, private companies and customers. The jobs in this sector however tend to be low status, badly paid and insecure.² The educational and skill requirements to become a carer are often quite low, and many workers treat it as temporary work. Because of this, many economists tend to describe paid care work as low skilled, which doesn’t reflect that the fact that looking after other people is a challenging job which requires quite a large set of interpersonal skills. 

This paid care economy has become an important livelihood for many migrants across the world. Workers from poorer countries or regions often find work in rich countries or cities in the paid caring economy, doing jobs such as domestic house work and office cleaning.³ This is particularly true in Western capitalist economies, where new jobs have opened up in the home, as women from these countries have started to participate more and more in the paid market economy.

Care work is fundamentally important because it is a universal human need, without which our society and economy can’t function. Children won’t grow up into healthy and happy adults if they are not cared for from the moment they enter into the world. The sick won’t get better and recover if they are not helped by others. The disabled and old will not be able to contribute to society and live dignified lives without the support and care of others. And yet despite this fundamental importance, care work remains under-studied within mainstream economics and undervalued as part of the economy.