State relying on unpaid care work by women for far too long
Outdated reference in Constitution to ‘women’s place in the home’ needs to be replaced
We urgently need to address the lack of appropriate State intervention to deliver care services to the public. Photograph: iStock
“Before this it was a struggle but I was managing. Now, I am honestly at breaking point.” This comment from one of the many women on the National Women’s Council (NWC) consulted with during the first coronavirus lockdown depicts the enormous pressures women are facing during this crisis, further increasing existing gender inequalities.
As we mark Nollaig na mBan today, the day women traditionally “take off” after Christmas from housework and care work to celebrate “Little Christmas”, we know it won’t be a holiday for women. Back in lockdown with schools closed, it will be a day where many women are again taking on more of the care, family and household responsibilities and tasks.
How can we change the societal expectations and deeply ingrained norms that tell us care is 'women’s work'?
Data published by the Central Statistics Office indicates that gendered patterns of care were replicated during the pandemic. More women cared for family or friends and women were more likely to report difficulty working from home because of family responsibilities. NWC’s Caring During Covid online survey mirrors these findings and highlights its impact on women. Some 85 per cent of women said their caring responsibilities had increased since the virus, and 55 per cent said they had less time for their mental health.
The coronavirus crisis has put a spotlight on the importance of care to our economy and society and the value of giving and receiving care to our wellbeing. How then can we change the societal expectations and deeply ingrained norms that tell us care is “women’s work”? Nollaig na mBan this year will be closely followed by a discussion on care at the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality (January 15th).
One of the outcomes members of the NWC would like to see is a recommendation to hold a referendum to amend article 41.3 of the Constitution. This would replace the outdated reference to “women’s place in the home” with an inclusive statement that enshrines the value of care to our society.
In addition, we urgently need to address the lack of appropriate State intervention to deliver care services to the public. While women continue to be responsible for the lion’s share of care, it’s worth noting that women and men in Ireland do more unpaid caring work than anywhere else in the European Union. The key reasons for this are underinvestment by the State and reliance on private services.
There are well-documented deficits in our provision of early years care and out of school care, with costs among the highest in the EU and affordability impacting most acutely on lone parents. However, we also need to see investment into a comprehensive care infrastructure across the lifecycle. The absence of a State response to supporting disabled and older people to live autonomous lives, leaves family carers, predominantly women, to provide care. It also forces disabled and older people into a position of dependence on family members.
For too long, the State has relied on the unpaid labour of women and the undervalued labour of a female-dominated workforce to provide critical care services with poor pay and working conditions. Six out of 10 early years workers earn below the living wage. Domestic and personal care workers are often migrant women workers on precarious contracts and vulnerable to exploitation.
Solutions require political leadership and ambitious decisions during this crisis and in the long term
Investment in public models of care, rather than dependence on the market to provide services, is crucial. In countries with public childcare, services are more affordable, accessible and of higher quality. A public model is key to delivering better pay and conditions for workers. Across Europe, the most important factor in lowering the pay and conditions of care workers is the extent to which care is marketised. Collective bargaining also has an important role to play in improving terms and conditions in the sector.
We also need to see more care-friendly workplaces where workers are supported to combine work and care. This includes reduced working hours for all and policies on flexible working but also statutory parental leave policies that enable greater sharing of care in families.
While legislation is important, the success of an approach depends on the interplay of multiple factors. Uptake of paternity and parent’s leave by men, for example, is low and one reason for this is the low rate of payment. Legislation to increase the duration of both is needed but so too is an increase in the payments for all family leave payments.
Let’s remember that while the issue of care is complex, there are solutions. These solutions require political leadership and ambitious decisions during this crisis and in the long term. Let’s take this opportunity to revaluate the importance of care in all our lives and invest in a society where care is valued and shared all year round.