In the care economy, unpaid does not mean worthless

For me, August means juggling the demands of school holiday childcare with those of my paid employment. Really, it’s like having two jobs; both rewarding and time-consuming, both with responsibilities.

Perhaps it’s only when we have children or other loved ones who need care, that we really recognize the value of unpaid care work.

For example, think about Maria. She quit her paid job as a bank clerk in the 1970’s and has devoted most of her adult life to full-time caring, without financial reward. Instead of working for pay she has supported the well-being of four generations of her family (her own mother, husband, daughter and grandchildren). Maria’s daughter – who, like me, is also in a paid employment – fully recognizes the role of her mother’s unpaid labour and the choices it has opened up for her. “I could not be a mother and have a career without her support. She has always been there for us”.

All of us do some unpaid care work. But the ILO estimates that almost 647 million working-age people world-wide (overwhelmingly women) devote themselves to full-time unpaid services, such as cooking, cleaning and supporting family members. Their contribution is largely invisible, but without it our economies and societies could not function.

Now Maria is almost 70. Despite years of valuable and hard work, she does not have an adequate pension or access to the benefits and services that can give her a life of dignity or provide quality long-term care. While she has supported society, it seems that society will not support her.

Writing this blog at a time when many are on holiday (although ‘Maria’ won’t be of course!), I’ve been thinking of how the lives of unpaid carers could be different, and better.

Firstly, we need to recognize that unpaid caregiving and household services are “work”. This has been acknowledged by labour statistics standards since 2013, but we need more information on unpaid carers, who they are, what they do, and the benefits their labour generates.

Such statistics would also help us measure a country’s social and economic progress far more accurately than we do by just using Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which fails to capture the value of unpaid care work. We would get a more realistic picture of a nation’s standard of living and well-being, that really matters.

More information about unpaid carers would allow policy-makers – working with employers’ and workers’ organizations – to better address the needs of people like Maria, and ensure that her valuable care work does not bring knock-on penalties for her employment, earnings and social protection.

We also need to give unpaid carers a voice and ensure they have a role in making decisions that affect them and their families, for example, when policies are being written (or not) on paid parental leave, health care or school opening hours.

We must also invest more in the creation of decent, paid, care jobs. By 2030, the care economy could generate 269 million new jobs. This requires a doubling of current levels of public and private investment in care services.

And, we must change the social and cultural norms that dictate women’s and men’s roles in society. The ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, adopted in June, calls for “achieving gender equality at work through a transformative agenda”, that “enables a more balanced sharing of family responsibilities…provides scope for achieving better work-life balance…[ and] promotes investment in the care economy”.

The European Union has a new directive that will help carers balance employment and family responsibilities. It introduces at least ten days’ paid leave for a baby’s second parent (e.g. fathers), five days’ paid leave per year for carers of a sick or dependent family member, and the right to request flexible working arrangements.

These steps are encouraging. But the journey towards transforming the lives of unpaid carers like Maria is far from over. A better future of work cannot be achieved without co-ordinated, proactive and courageous measures so that unpaid care is equally shared and carers – both paid and unpaid – are valued, recognized and rewarded for their work and have a seat at the table.


Laura Addati
Laura Addati
ILO Policy Specialist