‘Revolution’ needed in how care work provided, conference hears

Work of caring for children, elderly, disabled and the sick essential to smooth functioning of society

A “revolution” in how care work is provided, distributed and valued is necessary if women are to achieve equality, a leading academic in women’s rights has warned.

UCD emeritus associate professor of sociology Ursula Barry told the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s annual general meeting (agm) on Thursday that any Government serious about gender equality must “place the care economy at [the] centre” of its economic thinking.

The work of caring for children, older people, and disabled and sick people were essential to the smooth functioning of society and economies yet its economic contribution was not measured, because in the vast majority of cases it was done by women and was unpaid, she said.

“It means that a very significant amount of the economic activity women carry out is hidden, invisible, unmeasured and devalued.”

She was addressing the council as it said it would be “campaigning very strongly” for a referendum next year on Article 41.2 of the Constitution. The central recommendation from the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality last year was that the article, which refers to women’s “life within the home” and mothers’ “duties within the home” be deleted and replaced.

National women’s council director Orla O’Connor said she hoped the campaign would, “bring about a whole conversation on care [and] hopefully … lead to enshrining the value of care in our Constitution. This is a really critical moment at which we are having this discussion on care … coming from the pandemic there really has been a new focus on the issue and importance of care in all our lives.”

Care work was “highly gendered” with 98 per cent of professional carers women and with the vast majority of unpaid care work delivered by women.

“When time is spent investing in care it’s not spent on other things like participating in social and political life … This has all come at a huge cost to women’s equality. We need to shift this narrative around care.”

Freeing all women — particularly lone parents and those in poverty — from having to provide thousands of hours of unpaid work, to enable them take up education or paid employment would require publicly provided, accessible and affordable care services such as childcare, she said.

“Valuing care means decent pay and conditions for workers,” she added, noting this was especially important for migrant women care workers.

Asked about the cost to the exchequer of delivering publicly funded care services, she said she believed citizens were ready to talk about “tough choices and that’s about policies on taxation to have these public services … It does mean a radical shift in terms of economic choices”.

Labour Party leader and chairwoman of the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality Ivana Bacik said nine of the Citizens’ Assembly’s 45 recommendations concerned care. Implementation of these along with constitutional change would “help us to deliver that revolution” she said.

Noting escalating costs across the economy, and a “brutal war in Ukraine”, she said these should not be used as excuses to delay. “Over 75 years ago in Britain, out of the ruins of [the second] World War, we saw the National Health Service being built — a genuinely revolutionary model of care and transformative system that has remained such a bedrock of society there. We need to see the same vision and transformative change here.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times