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Truly essential, but still “invisible”

Opinion Editorial by Mariyam Mohamed and Khady Hamid of Uthema Maldives, a local NGO that advocates for gender equality and women's empowerment in the Maldives.

Khady Hamid and Mariyam Mohamed
12 July 2020, MVT 08:58
A group of women prepare food. PHOTO: UTHEMA
Khady Hamid and Mariyam Mohamed
12 July 2020, MVT 08:58

Over the course of this pandemic, the term “essential workers” became a household phrase.

In the context of this global crisis, it refers to individuals who are functioning in jobs that are deemed absolutely necessary for the continuation of life, in a state of “reduced operations”.

For most countries, this includes healthcare workers serving in the front lines of COVID-19 response, as well as workers in utilities provision and waste management, journalists, so on and so forth. Much has been written about the value of the important services that these essential workers provide.

However, there is one particular group of workers who are essential -- crisis or not- that has not received much attention at all.

They are the unpaid and underpaid care workers. Those that subsidize the functionings of the formal economy, with their love, labour and sacrifice, at a negative benefit-cost ratio to themselves.

Not surprisingly, most of these workers tend to be women, and their labour has been taken for granted.

For far too long, they have remained “prisoners of love”, and they continue to pay a hefty price for it.

Unpaid care work, underpaid care work and the cost of caring

Care work is a subcategory of work, one that usually involves direct and indirect care activities to ensure the wellbeing of others.

To elaborate, direct care refers to activities such as taking care of the direct needs of young, elderly and the sick, while indirect care services involve tasks such as cooking, cleaning and so on.

Care work is often embedded both within the formal and the informal economy, and can be either paid, unpaid or underpaid. Unpaid care work usually takes place within a household and does not earn monetary compensation.

On the other hand, paid care work consists of care work that is performed for pay or profit, for instance, care services provided by nurses, teachers and doctors. Domestic help that lives in or frequents our houses to do the cooking, cleaning and also to take care of direct care needs of family members, also make up part of the paid care workforce. Even in instances that care work is paid for, they often tend to be underpaid.

Time poverty

The disproportionate care burden levied on women, leaves them “time poor”. This means that they have less time to participate in paid employment opportunities, engage in self care and leisure, or contribute to important social and political causes outside of the house.

In the Maldives, one in two women reveal they are unable to undertake income generating activities due to domestic duties such as childcare, cooking, cleaning and other household chores. Only 3 percent of men outside the labour force cited the same reasons for not participating in such tasks.

Even when employed, women still end up taking up a bigger share of the domestic duties and care work, within the household. Oftentimes, women are forced to cut back on hours of employment, or experience a reduction in pay and promotion after they have children.

This phenomenon, known as “motherhood employment penalty”, could explain the variation that one would see when analyzing a single woman’s participation in the labour force over her lifetime.

Often, the time poverty experienced by women translates into real poverty, over the course of her life. Eventually, lack of participation in the paid economy leaves women with less income, less savings, less pensions and less wealth.

These undeserved, ill-effects that “time poverty” and “real poverty” has on the lives of women, is magnified in the Maldives where up to 39 percent of households are headed, or managed, by females.

Chain of care

In the absence of state-subsidized daycare services and care services for senior citizens, it is usually women in the family who have to leave paid jobs to fulfill the gap, unless the family can afford to hire maid services or is able to rely on extended family support.

Back in the day, this gap was bridged by young girls and boys from outer islands, who would come and service wealthy families in Malé as maids, in exchange for an opportunity to study. In some cases, islanders sent their children to distant relatives in Male’, hoping that they would get educated and have a better life, not realizing they would be used as free labour and perhaps even subject to abuse.

This long-lived practise of mistreating those that care for us, while changed, has unfortunately not seen an improvement.

These days, our maids come from neighbouring countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh. The lack of regulation focused on preventing exploitation of their labor, means that the majority of the live-in maids are underpaid, overworked and often subject to harassment and abuse from employers.

The irony is that oftentimes, women migrating elsewhere to meet the care needs of other families, bears the unfortunate consequence of leaving their own children and elderly family members deprived of care.

In this way, they essentially become entangled in a chain of care that is neither just, nor equitable.

Mariyam Mohamed (L) and Khady Hamid of Uthema Maldives; Mariyam Mohamed is a gender and development professional who has been working in the social development sector primarily working on gender equality and social justice for the last 15 years. Khady Hamid is a development practitioner interested in exploring the intersections of gender, sustainability and human rights. She is currently doing a Masters in Development Practice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PHOTO/UTHEMA

Unpaid care burden of frontline workers

According to UN Women Asia Pacific, women form overly 70 percent of the entire world’s health force.

According to the 2014 Census, in the Maldives, 65 percent of those employed in the human health and social service sector are women. 85 percent of nurses and 31 percent of doctors in the country are women. Additionally, as highlighted in women’s rights NGO Uthema’s CEDAW shadow report, majority of those that are involved in technical job categories, such as lab technicians, are also women.

Even in pre-covid times, women in the health care sector in the Maldives had been subject to working conditions that do not allow for adequate rest, nor do they receive fair compensation for long, continuous shifts.

These conditions have worsened in the pandemic, and healthcare workers, especially female health care workers find themselves having to deal with an increased burden of both paid care work as well as unpaid care work at home. On top of that, there have also been reports of these selfless workers being subject to harassment and threats of eviction from their landlords, due to social stigma over ill-informed fears. It is extremely worrying that these realities of unpaid care work burden was overlooked during the COVID-19 response.

All of the above has major implications on the quality of paid care work they are able to provide as well as on their overall physical, mental and emotional well being.

Looming care crisis

While we are dismayed by the gender disparity in the provision of care work, the truth is that we are not shocked.

The logic of oppressive patriarchy and capitalism comes into play to relegate the “less important work” in society to the “weaker” members of society - women and particularly, poor women. The ongoing pandemic has exposed the ugliness of that logic.

Given Maldives’ climate-related vulnerabilities, we can be sure that crises of such scale and devastation will become more frequent and more severe. This is on top of a looming care crisis, with projections of a global ageing population that is going to increase by 100 million, over the next 10 years. Currently, close to 50 percent of the Maldivian population is below the age of 25.

However, this is expected to change in the next 30 years, with the elderly population projected to increase fivefold between 2014 to 2045.

This means that unless we act bold and take radical action, we have a crisis of care in store for us as well.

Time for care policies

As a Middle Income Country (MIC), with the highest per capita GDP in the sub-continent, there is no reason why the Maldives can’t do better, in addressing existing and expected care deficits.

Some may argue that in the middle of a pandemic is not the best time to move forward with such policies.

However, the urgency of the matter is such that this cannot be put on the back burner any longer and we must take positive examples from countries that have formulated policies that address this deficit of care work policies. The government must recognize the increased demand for care work is deepening already existing inequalities in the gender division of labor. The less visible parts of the care economy are coming under increasing strain, but remain unaccounted for in the economic response - this needs to be addressed immediately, as an utmost priority.

Medium and long term policies must center on the 5R framework developed by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which aims to recognize, reduce, redistribute, reward and represent unpaid and paid care work.

This means that policies addressing care needs should go hand in hand with policies to improve labor rights, promote gender equality and reform macroeconomic accounting.

More specifically, policy priorities for the next five years must focus on:

- Conducting extensive time use surveys to quantify and put a monetary value to the unpaid care work performed by women and find ways of incorporating it into national accounts

- Enacting policies to provide incentives such as tax or land lease credits to tourist resorts that put in place transport arrangements, accommodation options, work hours and leave policies that will allow both men and women in the industry to spend more quality time on unpaid care work at home, such as tending to children, elderly parents or others that need care

- Investing in public infrastructure to address care needs. This includes the establishment of subsidized child care and elderly care services that will make sense and work in the Maldivian context. It is important that this to be designed in consultation with key stakeholders

- Facilitating further avenues for the professionalization and expansion of the paid care economy, including domestic workers. This includes guarantees of better working conditions (minimum wage, maximum number of hours of work and right to unionize, etc)

- Providing employers with incentives to put in place flexible working options, allowing for both men and women to invest more time in providing care

- Addressing the gender gap in care work, through the promotion of equal sharing of both paid and unpaid care work by engaging men through the education system and public campaigns to raise awareness

- Ensuring proper implementation of the Gender Equality Law

- Funding studies and research on economic alternatives that enhance social well being and incorporating these alternatives into the economic recovery package. This includes new ways of doing business, facilitating expansion avenues for the informal sector and home based workers and recognizing the contributions of unpaid care work.

The prisoners of love in our lives

Often when we think about the plight of unpaid and underpaid care workers, we think of our mothers.

We are all familiar with the sacrifices that our mothers had to make to look after us, our siblings and the elderly members of the family. For sure, there are times when we felt outraged with the unfairness of the system that treated our mothers and other care-givers as ‘prisoners of love’; penalizing them for simply opting to care for and love the family.

As we try to build better for life after COVID-19, we urge policy makers to tap into that familiar “rage” that they might have felt at some point in lives about the plight of the ‘prisoners of love’ in their lives and invest in policies that would give everyone a fair opportunity to build a life of dignity and choices.

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