How to compensate for unpaid care work

A woman working at a quarry with her baby. Experts say that as long as unpaid care work remains unquantified, unrecognised and unpaid, it will continue to be gender-insensitive.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Some professions, predominantly filled by women, often receive low wages.
  • State ought to put in place strategies that recognise unpaid labour as valuable work.

“Should I pay my wife to cook for me?” This is one of the questions posed by a reader after he read a Nation article on the burden of unpaid work women carry over the holidays.

The reader then swiftly dismissed that possibility by adding, “Wifely duties are wifely duties.

There is nothing like ‘unpaid labour’…at this rate, women will demand to be paid for giving birth too, yet it is their duty!”

Disregarding the blatant misogyny in the response, I, too, wondered, "Who should foot the bill of unpaid work?"

In a UN Women Equality Café held on the eve of International Women’s Day, women’s economic empowerment policy specialist Mehjabeen Alarakhia offered insights into how unpaid care work can be addressed.

“A variety of professions provide care work. Examples include domestic workers, nurses, and early childhood educators. These professions, predominantly filled by women, often receive low wages,” Ms Alarakhia began by explaining.

“However, some care work like cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly is not compensated for and is majorly carried out by women.”

Considering that one of the targets under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality is to recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work, she identified four entities that can shoulder compensation: the state, the market, community/civil society, and households (this being the least formalised).

“The government must prioritise care-related aspects and implement gender-responsive budgeting,” she said.

“One example is the provision of running water services, especially for female-headed households. This would reduce the amount of time women spend fetching water.

“The state should also create a regulatory environment conducive to the care economy by, for instance, implementing childcare policies.

“Women will only trust government-provided childcare services if they meet certain quality standards, similar to the expectations for care centres for sick parents.”

This suggestion is in line with gender expert Jane Godia's sentiments that the government must put in place strategies that recognise unpaid labour as valuable work.

“If all things worked well, care work should be compensated for by the government. Caring for the sick or a person with disability, or someone not able to take care of themselves is a full-time job that the government should pay for,” Ms Godia stated in an earlier interview with Nation.Africa.

As for the market, Ms Alarakhia says it must be a caring economy. This involves unique selling points such as old-age protection and investing in gender-responsive services, such as infrastructure bonds that the government can mobilise.

At the household level, redistributing the labour among other family members and investing in technology that reduces the time and labour required for care work, such as laundry businesses, is crucial.

“An analysis conducted by UN Women in 2021 revealed that women collectively spent up to 16.4 billion hours in unpaid work. This is equivalent to two billion full-time jobs on care work.

"It is imperative to invest in these women and incorporate their contributions into the GDP,” Ms Alarakhia advised.