Care is an economic issue: Addressing gender inequalities in care work

Care is an economic issue: Addressing gender inequalities in care work

Ipek Ilkkaracan is Professor of Economics at Istanbul Technical University, a founding member of Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) – New Ways and a member of IWRAW Asia Pacific’s advisory committee. She coined the term ‘purple economy’ to convey the need for an economic model which recognises care work. Without it, the sustainability of human societies will be threatened. Here, she explains her thinking.

A shorter version of this interview can be found in our briefing paper, Four Things to Know about the Purple Economy.

What were the circumstances that prompted your vision of the ‘purple economy’, ‘purple jobs’ and ‘purple investment’? What does the purple economy entail, and why purple?

‘Purple economy’ conveys the vision of a gender-egalitarian economic system. Purple, because this is the symbolic colour of the women’s movement in many countries around the world, including my native country, Turkey. It is inspired by the popularity of the ‘green economy’.

The idea of associating the vision of a gender-egalitarian economy with this symbolic colour sprung up first at a green economy conference organised by the Turkish and German Greens in 2009 in Istanbul. I was the last speaker at a day-long conference and was asked to speak about the green economy from a gender perspective. As I faced the challenge of inspiring an audience tired from a full day of exposure to talking heads, I felt I had to say something that would wake them up – so to speak. And I started out saying, “For a truly sustainable economy, green is not enough, you also need some purple economy.” And that did succeed in getting the audience’s attention. Some years later in 2013, I was invited to an expert workhop on building connections between the green economy and the care economy, whick took place at the German Ministry for the Environment in Berlin. It was here that I used the idea of the purple economy again and was asked to develop the concept further in writing under commission by the ministry there.

The green economy emphasises an area of utmost importance from an economic perspective, which nevertheless remains absent from the mainstream economic paradigm. Mother nature provisions resources for human wellbeing, which is after all the ultimate objective of economic growth and development. Natural resources are used as inputs of production and items of consumption. The mainstream economic paradigm takes for granted that the ecological environment will be an enabling one no matter what. It was only in the late twentieth century, with the emergence of an environmental crisis, that we started developing an awareness that this might not be the case, unless our methods of production based on a reckless profit motive and our insatiable quest for consumption are regulated, restrained and reoriented. The idea of the green economy was developed as a response to the environmental crisis; calling for regulation of production and consumption patterns so as to allow reproduction of natural resources at their own pace and hence aiming at a balanced sustainable ecological system.

Akin to the green economy, another area of economic importance which also remains absent from the mainstream economic paradigm is the care economy. The care economy entails the reproduction of people on a daily basis as well as reproduction of future generations through caring labour. This caring labour consists predominantly of women’s unpaid labour – cooking, washing, cleaning, shopping, taking care of babies/ill/disabled/elderly as well as taking care of healthy adults, including self-care. This work that we take so much for granted actually consists of millions of work hours. Global time-use statistics show that unpaid caring labour constitutes approximately 42% (almost half) of total global work hours; and that three quarters of this is women’s unpaid labour.

Since human labour is the most important input of production, unless people are reproduced on a daily basis and future generations are reproduced over time, enabling their capacity to contribute to production, economic sustainability and sustainability of human societies at large will face a threat. The current free market system is such that those who continue to provide unpaid caring labour – mostly women – are penalised in market terms and those who do not care for anyone but themselves (so to speak) – mostly men – are the ones who are rewarded. In fact we already have signs of an emerging care crisis: the demographic crisis, the emerging elderly care crisis in ageing societies and sporadic health care crises due to outbreak of illnesses such as HIV or the ebola virus in recent years. I argue that the deeply entrenched gender economic gaps and associated outcomes of women’s oppression are another form of the care crisis. For a long time it was assumed that the economic gender gaps – such as the gender employment gap, the gender wage gap or gendered job segregation – would erode over time in the course of economic growth. Yet into the 21st century, even the most developed economies are still grappling with them. In the best-case scenario, the employment gap closes but the wage gap and job segregation persist. This is because we face a natural time limit of 24×7; the more time one allocates to unpaid care work, the less time one has to commit to paid work, advancement in the labour market, access to income and accumulation of wealth. Hence unless we close the gender gaps in the unpaid care economy, the gender gaps in the paid economy will be inevitable.

The purple economy therefore foresees an economic system which acknowledges ‘care’ as an economic issue, and as a persistent source of inequalities unless the responsibilities for caring are equally distributed.

What solutions can the purple economy offer to the problems like unpaid care work, gender wage gap and devaluation of women’s work in general?

The purple economy entails what I call ‘four pillars’ aimed at the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work:

1. A universal infrastructure of social care services whereby all households have equal access to quality professional paid care services for children, ill, elderly and disabled.
This pillar enables the redistribution of caring labour between the private and the public/market spheres; i.e. transformation of some of the burden from the households/unpaid care work to the state, and through public subsidies to private producers/paid care work. Professionalisation of some of the care work also carries the potential for a reduction through increased efficiency.

2. Regulation of the labour market for work-life balance.
This pillar aims at redistribution of the unpaid care work inside the household between women and men, i.e. transformation of some of the burden from women’s unpaid work to men’s unpaid work. This entails regulatory measures such as paternity and parental leave, legal rights to other care leave (such as caring for an ill parent), shortening of work hours so as to achieve a reasonable full-time work week that enables people to combine paid work with family responsibilities, care insurance schemes for the self-employed, and so on.

3. Special measures aimed at reducing the unpaid work burden of rural households, especially the unpaid work of rural women.
Time-use statistics show that the unpaid work burden in less developed rural settings is enormous due to activities such as carrying water, collecting firewood, farming and food processing. An efficient rural physical infrastructure that prioritises the reduction of women’s unpaid work is paramount to ensuring a gender-egalitarian rural economy.

4. An alternative macroeconomic policy framework that enables the undertaking of the above three pillars.
The mainstream macroeconomic framework prioritises fiscal consolidation at all costs – which as experience shows has the inevitable outcome of cuts in social spending and an increase in women’s unpaid work burden. Mainstream macroeconomic stabilisation policy also focuses on price stability and balanced budgets at the expense of employment – at least in the shorter run. Lack of jobs and unemployment affects both men and women negatively. Yet the effect is worse for women because given their secondary income earner status, they are more likely to be discouraged from remaining in the labour market. Also given cuts in social spending, they are less likely to afford pursuing a paid job and balancing it with care responsibilities. Research also shows that women’s wages are more sensitive to rising unemployment, which means women also suffer relatively more from deteriorating pay and work conditions in environments of high unemployment. Hence a macroeconomic policy that prioritises sufficient job generation and creates the fiscal space for social spending is paramount.

My own empirical research in recent years has actually shown that the purple economy can be a means for jobs generating inclusive growth.

When care work is left to private markets/solutions, how does this replicate inequalities? Where are private-sector actors located in the discourse of purple economy?

When care work is left to private markets/solutions, the result is that only a minority of higher-income households can afford market substitutes for care, and the only women who have the option of pursuing an career are from those households. For women from lower-income households, labour market attachment is inevitably very weak. Their engagement in paid work is usually prior to marriage or childbirth. To the extent that male earnings can provide for basic necessities, it becomes more rational for women to remain as full-time homemakers so as to protect the care standards. In circumstances of dire need (such as when the man loses his job), married women will go out in search of paid work. This is what some feminist economists called ‘distress sale of women’s labour’. Hence women’s participation is more due to a push factor rather than a pull factor of demand; i.e. a robust job-generating economy; supported by enabling labour supply environment, i.e. where women have access to quality care services.

It is very important to realise that this is not simply an issue of gender but more an issue of gender and class, at different levels. It facilitates inequalities amongst women by class. For example in many developing economies, what we observe is that university graduate women have much stronger labour market attachment than those with lower levels of education. Women of lower education participate in the labour market while single, and then with marriage and childbirth they are forced to drop out because: i) with their low level of pay they cannot afford market substitutes for care unless there are publicly provided/subsidised quality services; ii) if they were informally employed to start with, they have no entitlement to paid care leave.

Leaving care to private solutions also facilitates inequalities amongst children and households. Children from higher-income households have access to early childhood development programmes and pre-school education, giving them a headstart in formal schooling. Research shows such access has lasting impact on labour market earnings. Also dual-earner family structure becomes feasible only for households with higher socioeconomic status, reducing their vulnerability to economic shocks and poverty risk.

Finally, leaving care to private solutions is actually what sets the stage for an emerging care crisis in the long run. This is akin to unregulated markets being at the source of the environmental crisis. Hence the real solution lies with the State: public provisioning of quality social care services (ensuring that fiscal budgets prioritise such social spending) and effective regulation of the labour market for a work environment that enables balancing of work and family. Private actors can contribute the most by complying and not resisting; also by innovating and implementing care-friendly work practices. There might also be space for private entrepreneurs to invest in high-quality and innovative, user-friendly care services.

You have said that the international migration of domestic workers is a perfect example of how inequalities get replicated. Can you explain what you mean by this?

I think the international migration of domestic workers is the epitome of multi-layered inequalities when the care economy is left to private markets/solutions. Women in upper-income households in relatively developed economies can afford to stay attached to the labour market through the poorly paid care work of migrant workers who come from lower-income households in low-income countries.

Hence globally we have a situation where the care crisis of the upper-income groups in richer countries is resolved at the expense of an emerging care crisis of the lower-income groups in the poorer countries. I think it is a human tragedy that a mother leaves her own baby/child to the care of relatives in order to go to another country to care for some other family’s baby/child. The problem is also only partially resolved for the higher-income groups on the receiving end. Because exploited care labour is never a perfect solution for the receivers either. All kinds of problems and conflicts emerge when the very task-intensive work of care is left to an untrained person in very poor work conditions.

Have you seen any of your ideas of the purple economy taken up in national or international economic policy discourses?

In the UK, the recently founded Left Unity Party used the idea of ‘purple jobs’ and ‘purple economy’ in their party’s economic manifesto along with green jobs and green economy.

Recently, and much to my delight, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) – a Europe-wide women’s rights advocacy network entailing national coordination from 30 countries – picked up the idea and adopted the idea of a ‘purple pact’ as their working concept.

I have been invited to give various seminars in the past few years: FEPS (a foundation of the EU Social Democratic Party) in Barcelona and Brussels; a graduate seminar at Northwestern University Boston; a gender and macroeconomics workshop organised by the Levy Economics Institute and Hewlett Foundation in New York; the Gender, Macroeconomics and International Economics GEM-Europe Network meeting in Krakow, Poland.

In 2017 a side event on the purple economy was organised by UN Women and Women for Women’s Human Rights at the 61st UN-CSW (Commission on the Status of Women).

And this year I am invited to the University of Rome – Sapienza as a visiting professor to work with colleagues there on developing the purple economy concept and its applications.

IWRAW Asia Pacific executive director Priyanthi Fernando spoke at the IMF-World Bank annual meeting on 9 October 2018, highlighting the importance of an economic model that reflects Professor Ipek’s vision.

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