Precarious lives

Two recent Oxfam reports on inequality draw attention to unpaid care work and its connection with increasing concentration of wealth, growing poverty, and violence against women.

Published : Feb 25, 2020 07:00 IST

Workers building a footpath along Barapullah in New Delhi.

Workers building a footpath along Barapullah in New Delhi.

THE world of work has never been easy for job seekers. With shrinking opportunities for employment and precarious work dominating the character of employment, declining female labour force participation and increasing unpaid care work, done mainly by women, have emerged as an area of concern. Both the Oxfam Global Inequality Report 2020 and the country-specific India Inequality Report 2020 titled “On Women’s Backs”, released in January, draw attention to the undervalued world of unpaid care work and the connection it has with increasing concentration of wealth, increasing poverty, and violence against women. The reports say that a global care crisis is in the offing as governments have abdicated their responsibility to provide such services to market forces.

In the report titled “Time to Care” on the state of global inequality, Oxfam points out that inequality has never been as bad as in recent decades. As many as 2,153 of the world’s billionaires have more wealth between them than 4.6 million people. The world’s richest 1 per cent have more than twice the wealth of some 6.9 million people. The monetary value of unpaid work done by women globally is three times the size of the tech industry in terms of value. The report quotes recent World Bank estimates that state that more than half of the world’s population subsists on less than five and a half dollars a day. 

The report talks about a “broken economic model” that has witnessed huge concentrations of wealth at the top irrespective of the value that wealth generates as compared with those at the bottom of the economy, especially the marginalised sections including women and girl children who put in “12.5 billion of hours of unpaid care work each and every day”. The financial benefits of such unpaid work are cornered by the richest, the majority of whom are men. Cuts in public spending have led to major shortfalls in health care workers the world over. The Global Burden of Disease 2017 study by Lancet showed that only 50 per cent of countries globally had enough health workers to deliver quality care services.

Even though ageing populations, cuts in public spending and climate change will exacerbate gender and economic inequalities, the rich will still be able to afford care while the poor will not. If the rich were to be taxed an additional 0.5 per cent over the next 10 years, this itself would result in creating 117 million jobs in education, elderly care, health and other sectors, states the report. But regressive taxation is driving economic inequality and cuts in public spending. 

People across the world are saying “enough is enough”. There have been protests against inequality and climate change across the world, as recently witnessed in Chile and Germany. The Gilet Jaunes (yellow vests) protests are ongoing in France. The report says that policies of leaders like United States President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, such as tax cuts for billionaires or placing obstructions to tackle climate change emergencies, including “turbo-charging racism”, sexism and hatred of minorities, have widened the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. 

The wealthy are simply not taxed enough. It is a global trend. At the top of the pyramid lie trillions of dollars in the hands of a very small group of people, mainly men, with only 4 per cent of the global tax collection coming from the taxation of such wealth. There are studies to show that the “super rich avoided 30 per cent of their tax liability” and extremely low corporate taxation helps shareholders cream off the profits. As an illustration, between 2011 and 2017, the average wages in G7 countries increased by 3 per cent, while dividends to shareholders went up by 31 per cent. Real wages have actually gone down over the years, while returns to shareholders had increased. Governments continue to give tax concessions to the rich, as is the case in India where corporate taxes have been lowered in order to attract more investment.

Gender dimension

It is bad enough that inequalities have widened and the wage rates are nearly stagnant, but there is also a gender dimension to this skewed distribution of wealth. The report points out that globally men own 50 per cent more wealth than women and also dominate positions of economic and political power. Globally, only 18 per cent of Ministers and 24 per cent of parliamentarians are women, while women occupy only 34 per cent of managerial positions. Women also support the market economy with their free and cheap labour and support the state by providing care that should have been the state’s responsibility. 

Unpaid work fuels a sexist economic system and order that takes away from the many while adding money to the pockets of the few. The report underscores the link between economic inequality and gender inequality, stating that the former is built on the latter as women constitute the bottom of the economic pyramid. Women and girls are more likely to be found in precarious and poorly paid employment, doing the bulk of unpaid and underpaid work. 

There is also an interrelationship between the economic model of development and the undervaluing of women’s labour as well as unpaid work. The dominant model of capitalism, says the report, exploits and drives traditional sexist beliefs that disempower women and girls by counting on them to do this kind of work, yet denying them the value of the same. 

Globally, unpaid and underpaid care work is done by women and girls belonging to the poorer sections. According to an estimate quoted in the report, women account for three-quarters of all unpaid work and constitute two-thirds of the paid care workforce. Forty-two per cent of women in the working age group were out of the paid workforce as compared with 6 per cent of men, mainly owing to unpaid care work responsibilities. The number of hours spent on such work is also very high. Women in rural communities and low-income countries spend almost 14 hours each day on unpaid work, which is five times as much as what men do in these communities.

There is also a strong correlation between girls who dropped out of school and did unpaid care work. Those who are out of school and have lower attendance are also likely to be engaged in unpaid care work, and vice versa. Then there are the grossly underpaid domestic workers engaged in care work. Of 60 million domestic workers the world over, 80 per cent are women. Only 10 per cent of domestic workers globally are covered under general labour laws, while only half of them are covered by minimum wage laws; neither do they have limited hours of work. The majority of them do not have any social security protection such as maternity benefits. 

Unpaid care work is the biggest impediment for women wanting to take part in political and other activities. Underpaid care work is invisible. It perpetuates, and is perpetuated, by economic and gender inequality. It is treated as “non-work” and as a cost rather than an investment, states the report. According to the International Labour Organisation data quoted in the Oxfam India report, urban women in India spend 312 minutes on unpaid care work while their rural counterparts spend 291 minutes each day. In contrast, urban men spend 29 minutes and rural men 32 minutes on unpaid care work each day. Interestingly, while presenting the Union Budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme had yielded tremendous results in that the Gross Enrolment Ratio of girls was better than that of boys for all levels of education. Nirmala Sitharaman spoke of enrolment but not of dropout rates. 

The India Inequality report, titled “On Women’s Backs”, based on interviews with rural and urban women in Udaipur and Delhi, found that that child marriage was one of the major reasons for girls dropping out of school. School education, the respondents revealed, did not have either a social or an economic value. A separate 2018 report by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights showed that of the 40 per cent of girls who were out of school in the 15-18 age group, 65 per cent were engaged in household work. Unpaid care work was also the trigger for violence. There is a high rate of acceptance among women regarding violence against them. This belief that a woman’s duty is towards the household and the family has deep social currency.

State withdrawal 

While the number of people in the ageing population group globally has been steadily rising, the need for old-age care has been going up, accompanied by a withdrawal by the state from providing care services. The responsibility therefore has shifted to individuals, with no shared responsibility by either society or the state. Instead of “ramping up social programmes and spending to invest in care”, countries have increased taxation on poor people, reduced public spending and privatised services like education and health, often following the advice of financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Oxfam points to evidence to show that IMF programmes that used this particular approach in Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan had negatively impacted women, threatening to increase inequality.

The dominance of neoliberal economics, which places a value on deregulation and reduced public spending by governments, has resulted in the concentration of wealth and monopoly power on the one hand and increased inequality on the other. 

Accelerating inequality

A handful of corporations dominate food, pharmaceuticals, finance, media and technology. These monopolies and their shareholders, states the report, are responsible for “accelerating inequality” as they extract profits from the market and share it among themselves. One-third of billionaire wealth comes from inheritance, which effectively undermines redistribution, a fact pointed out by the economist Thomas Piketty. Extreme wealth has the potential to influence policy and politics, “reinforcing feedback loops whereby the winners of the economic game get the resources to win even bigger next time”, states the Oxfam report. This form of extreme wealth could also be used to influence the media and academia in order to bolster and reinforce the mainstream economics that benefits the elite. 

Extremes of wealth, says the report, are not a sign of a healthy economy but rather that of one that is very sick and needs fixing. The pace of poverty reduction has also slowed down. The World Bank has revealed that the rate at which extreme poverty is being reduced has halved since 2013. At this rate, the Oxfam report ponders whether the Sustainable Development Goals will be met. The 2018 World Inequality Report shows that between 1980 and 2016, the richest 1 per cent received 20 cents of each dollar from global economic growth. This is almost twice the share of the bottom 50 per cent, who received 12 cents of each dollar. Reducing extreme inequality cannot be left to the economic system. 

Tackling a sexist economy is one of the crucial ways of reducing and finally eliminating inequality. Oxfam studies and data have shown that globally women do the bulk of care work owing to sexist beliefs and behaviours. While the report does not state it in as many words, the devaluation of women as workers is an intrinsic feature of patriarchal and capitalistic societies. Patriarchy and capitalism have historically been a precondition for the devaluation of women’s work and women as workers.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, it was found that unpaid care workers, mostly women, for the ill, aged and disabled had contributed 132 billion pounds to the economy, which was as much as the government spent on the National Health Service. In the U.S., too, 16.1 million people, mostly women, provided unpaid care services for persons with dementia, which would have otherwise cost the government $232 billion. “When women provide care services for free, it is perceived that governments do not need to make provision and that families do not need the extra income to pay for care services,” states the Oxfam report. 

There is evidence to suggest that children in the three to six age group who attended preschool had higher levels of attendance and better learning outcomes. They were less likely to repeat, drop out or need remedial or special education. This also enabled women and girls to take up paid employment as they were free from care work.

 The report “On Women’s Backs” establishes the connection between the unpaid care status of women and violence against them. The media tended to focus more on individual cases of violence against women without going into the underpinnings of such violence. 

Violence against women

The internalisation of patriarchy by women and the almost unchanging belief in their natural subservience are causes for the occurrence of violence and the acceptance of the same by women. Findings by the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) have brought out the connections between household duties and violence against women. The causes could range from cooking an inadequate meal, sexual infidelity and low dowry to absence of a male child, all of which are attributed to the woman. Alcoholism among men is also a reason for women getting beaten up. According to the 2019 Oxfam survey on Household Care, 42.2 per cent of women who failed to fetch water were beaten while 64.7 per cent were severely criticised. 

The report candidly states that a patriarchal economic and social structure lies at the base and root of the neoliberal economic system, the former being responsible for the sexist and racist attitudes that drive the marginalisation of women and the undervaluation of their work. 

Patriarchal norms also presuppose that care work is the natural domain of a woman which effectively removes the responsibility of the state to provide services such as care for children, the elderly, the disabled and the ill. Most women are “socialised” to take on care work in the home, while indigenous, migrant women or those from certain ethnic or religious groups are expected to take on work for wealthier households. 

According to UN Women, even as the percentage of paid work by women has increased, the burden of unpaid care work is still the responsibility of women. Domestic violence is a natural outcome and a socially accepted response if women fail to perform the roles as caregivers. Men, on the other hand, stay away from taking on these roles for fear of ridicule, workplace stigma and public shaming.

Where caregivers are paid, the terms and conditions of work are unfavourable compared with workers in other sectors with similar skill sets and qualifications. They lack legal status and other work-related protection or benefits. Only one in 10 domestic workers has equal protection under labour laws like workers in other sectors. Immigrant domestic workers are more vulnerable because they are tied to their employers or agencies instead of being covered under labour laws.

The world of work has become more precarious than ever. The caregiver industry is a highly privatised one where informal rather than proper contractual arrangements prevail, leaving the worker caregiver vulnerable. In the absence of employment opportunities, many young people, including women, opt for such work despite the risks involved. The reluctance of governments to regulate this industry, while giving tax concessions to corporates, has been all the more surprising given the contribution of the workers, paid and unpaid, to national economies. 

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