Unpaid Care Work - Should Business Care?
I recently attended the seminar ‘Women’s economic empowerment: who cares?’ at IDS. We watched this beautiful video (that I recommend to everyone!), which unpacks what unpaid care work is, why it is important, and how it affects everyone’s wellbeing. It also highlights its invisibility in all agendas (policy, development, business) and why this has to be changed.
And it’s not just IDS and its research partners ActionAid International, BRAC University and SMERU Research Institute highlighting this issue.
UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, recently presented a report stating that ‘unpaid care work […] is a major human rights issue […] unequal care responsibilities are a major barrier to gender equality and to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights.’
Strategic ignorance and the invisibility of care
In spite of this recognised importance, unpaid care work is ‘forgotten’ easily, or is considered too complex to include in development programmes. IDS Fellow Rosalind Eyben describes this as ‘strategic ignorance’, and explain..., it is one of the reasons why unpaid care work is still invisible in the agendas.
Having experienced organisational challenges myself when trying to introduce care components in development projects; the seminar got me thinking firstly, how I can go about introducing ‘care’ into my work, and, secondly, who has influence to make care more visible.
What does cooking, cleaning or taking care of other family members have to do with businesses?
One of these influential actors is business. Although business and development have a somewhat contested relationship, business as an emerging and critical actor in development is a reality. As a result of this, and, also, because it is the focus of my research, the question I keep asking myself is, why should businesses care and how can they introduce ‘care’ on their agendas?
In her report, Ms Sepúlveda Carmona writes:
‘Unpaid care work is a major reason why women do not enjoy equal rights at work, including fair and equal wages and safe and healthy working conditions […] As a result, for many women living in poverty with unpaid care responsibilities, work is not empowering but rather a survival necessity.’
Does business have a role to play in addressing unpaid care?
On the other hand, more and more, businesses are promoting women’s economic empowerment programmes as potential ‘win – win’ solutions to improve poor women’s lives and reduce the gender gap, while still obtaining a benefit. Incorporating women in business value chains is being considered a route to their ‘empowerment’.
Take for example Coca-Cola´s 5by20 programme. It aims to ‘enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across its global value chain by 2020’. They define empowerment as ‘access to business skills training courses, financial services and connections with peers or mentors – along with the confidence that comes with building a successful business’.
Hence, the programme and its hoped-for impact seem very straightforward: include women in Coca–Cola’s value chain so they can be empowered (following their definition). Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that, from the moment Coca-Cola started their 5by20 programme, they acquired a responsibility towards all the women involved.
What does economic empowerment have to with ‘care’ and what happens to ‘care’ when women are economically empowered?
Bearing that responsibility in mind, the immediate question is has Coca-Cola thought about unforeseen consequences that this new job might have on the women? What will happen to the unpaid care work they were doing now that they have less time to do it? And so on.
Consequences can be diverse: for example, women may now have a double burden, both working outside their household and inside it. Or, their care obligations might be transferred to their daughter, or might be left undone. It might be that women have to pay someone else to do the care now. Maybe, they have to migrate to work, leaving the responsibilities to older members of the family.
In my view, there is a gap between the goals programs like Coca–Cola’s 5by20 aim to achieve, versus what actually happens in reality with regards to women’s economic empowerment. Outcomes vary, but by not asking these questions, the problem does not go away.
We tend to forget important things about unpaid care work. It can’t ‘not’ be done - if a woman cannot do it, the responsibility will fall to someone else, usually her daughter(s). Additionally, unpaid care is not only about hours spent, it is also about emotions, feelings and power relations within the household, hence the difficulty to measure it or include it on the programme goals (‘strategic ignorance’ again).
So, how can businesses care?
Recognising that care work is critical for everyone’s wellbeing is the first step. From here, programmes will start asking questions, identifying challenges and designing solutions.
New tools are emerging to help us deal with these challenges. For example, Oxfam has designed a ‘Rapid Care Analysis’ (RCA) exercise that helps assess these issues and define potential solutions in 1-2 days. By using this tool, businesses can obtain an assessment of the situation and include elements to deal with care concerns.
Still, the challenge remains today of engaging businesses to put care on their agendas. I have introduced Oxfam’s RCA tool as a possible starting point. What do you think? Do you know any other tools that businesses could use?
 To understand better why care has been forgotten in the development agenda, I recommend reading ‘The Hegemony Cracked: The Power Guide to Getting Care onto the Development Agenda’, also from Rosalind Eyben (2012). You can download it free at http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/the-hegemony-cracked-the-power-gui....
 There is still reasonable doubt whether businesses should play a role in these issues or not be involved at all. However, I think it is important to acknowledge the role they are already playing and leave that debate for a different space.
 Care work does not only involve women, but given that, in many countries it is still considered a woman’s job, I have linked it with woman’s economic programme. This is, hence, another challenge for care, trying not to be categorised as a feminist or gender issue, while still being about women. Gender and care are related but not the same thing.
This post originally appeared on Globalisation and Development