[OPINION] A call to fairness: Female care workers are invisible and severely underpaid

Lan Mercado
[OPINION] A call to fairness: Female care workers are invisible and severely underpaid
Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day – a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year

Rowena, from Salcedo in the Philippines, is a daycare worker at a local school. After she’s done with her day’s work, she comes home to care for her family. As a housewife, her care work takes a lot of time and literally means heavy lifting: “The heaviest housework is fetching water. It takes us 3 to 4 hours to go and get water because our water source is far. We have to go to the river and lift our own water cans.” 

Rowena and other women in Salcedo are constantly working at home and at their jobs, anxious about earning enough to keep kids in school, having enough money to survive, and being barely prepared for times of trouble such as disasters that regularly happen across Asia, the latest of which is the Taal volcano eruption in Philippines.

Lim Kok Thay, the highest-paid CEO in Malaysia, is one of the wealthiest men in the country. The billionaire, son to founder of Genting Group, builds his wealth on a portfolio of casinos, tourism, and oil investments. He adds to his wealth every year with his salary of US$ 68.6 million from two positions at Genting Bhd and Genting Malaysia Bhd. His earnings per minute are at least US$290. 

For a domestic care worker who struggles to get through the day, it would take 21,561 years to earn what Lim earns in a year. In turn, Lim would earn what a domestic worker earns in a year in just 10 minutes. Does that sound fair to the Rowenas of the world? (READ: Why many of the hungry are women)

Asia truly is a tale of two fortunes. While Asia’s billionaires wallow in wealth, it’s also home to the world’s largest population of those struggling to make ends meet – 1.2 billion people living in and near poverty. 831 billionaires in Asia and Pacific own 2,700 billion in wealth, which is more than 1.8 billion of us have. In the region, China has the most billionaires – 324, followed by India with 106.  

MOTHER. Elizabeth, a factory worker, takes care of her one-month old baby in an evacuation center in the town of Mataasnakahoy in Batangas. She and her family fled for safety when Taal volcano erupted more than a week ago. Photo by April Abello-Bulanadi/Oxfam

The problem is global, too. 4.6 billion of us have less wealth than the world’s 2,513 billionaires. That a few thrive while a majority strive hard for a decent living is a symptom of a global epidemic. In fact, most of us will struggle to make ends meet if we miss a paycheck due to sickness or family trouble; a clear sign of an economy and system that’s failing. Inequality that ails our economies is out of control and keeps growing, leaving billions behind, particularly women and girls. Of the estimated 67 million domestic workers worldwide, 80% are women. 

While many governments have committed to reducing inequalities, they are barely walking their talk. We must demand that they prioritize the needs of people who elected them over the profits and fortunes of a few at the top. By making sure businesses and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, our leaders can invest in our wellbeing now and for the future. The wealthy have gotten away with paying little either by using legal loopholes or illegally dodging taxes altogether. Asians believe that widespread corruption among leaders of nations and government service providers has stalemated the kind of progress that can benefit many. 

We know that when nations spend more of their resources earned through fair taxation on public services like schools, hospitals, social safety and other public services, the lives of millions, if not billions, significantly improve. For instance, taxing an additional 0.5% of the wealth of the richest 1% over 10 years and spending on public goods can create 117 million jobs in education, health, elderly care, and other sectors.  

CHORES. Cristy, a domestic worker, takes advantage of the sunny weather to sort and dry her family’s laundered clothes. Her house was completely damaged by the storm surge triggered by Typhoon Ursula. Photo by April Abello-Bulanadi/Oxfam

We also have some examples from countries in Asia – Thailand, Philippines and elsewhere – where good policies implemented well have transformed the lives of millions, but there just aren’t enough. For the billionaires of the world, a high-quality education, great health care, and meeting all other needs is a birthright, but for the Rowenas, who are a majority in Asia, these rights are unmet, unfulfilled. And there lies the injustice.   

Oxfam’s report “Time to Care,” launched at the World Economic Forum convened in Davos, shows how, despite the tremendous contribution women and girls make to running the global economy, their work is often unrecognized. Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day – a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year. (READ: More women prefer working than staying at home – ILO)

Governments can ease the burden of care workers drastically by investing public funds. Universal access to safe water, sanitation, energy, universal childcare, eldercare, and care for people with disabilities would go a long way towards improving their lives and creating opportunities for them to achieve a better tomorrow. 

Paid care workers are underpaid and undervalued. Domestic workers, nurses, child and elderly caregivers, those who work in hospitality, and others often don’t enjoy full labor rights or a decent wage enough to meet their needs. Governments must sign on and implement the International Labor Organizations Convention 189 to protect their rights.

Make no mistake. Care work is work that’s essential for our societies to survive, prosper, and grow. It is the hidden engine that runs our economies. Nurturing children, caring for the sick and elderly, and all the mundane household chores are critical necessities. It’s largely the burden of women and girls. Globally, 42% of women of working age are outside the paid labor force, compared with 6% of men, because of unpaid care responsibilities.

All women and girls have the right to a fair living wage. We must put an end to the wage-pay gap between men and women and end discrimination at work completely. Care workers need a voice at decision-making tables not only in governments but in their communities and places of work. Within businesses, women and girls are often relegated to low-paying jobs at the lowest end of value chains. For instance, in the seafood industry, women are limited to bottom-rung jobs like cleaning and packing. (READ: Women, the sea, and food security)

The contribution of care work by women and girls is more than thrice the contribution made by the entire global tech industry. And this figure is probably an underestimation as many forms of care work is invisible. We need to respect care work, recognize the role it plays in making our society function and reward care workers justly. We must, as a society, embrace care work as a duty of all – men, boys, women, and girls. 

We need to build a new story for a more humane economy where prosperity is shared, and it must show care work the respect it deserves. Our societies and cultures here in Asia have long placed care as a virtue of the highest order – caring for our people, our families, our kids, elders, neighbors, even those different to us. It’s high time we walk our values and put our money where our ideals are. – Rappler.com

Lan Mercado is the Regional Director for Oxfam in Asia. She is an activist and development worker, with over 30 years of experience working with civil society coalitions, environmental movements, and international women’s rights organizations. 

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