If tomorrow all accountants; train drivers; or law professors were to stop working, there would be disruption and inconvenience, but society would cope. If all carers did no care, the results would be catastrophic. Care work is essential to the wellbeing of our society. Yet it is grossly undervalued. Those who are paid carers are among the most worse paid in the workforce. Informal carers suffer poverty and social exclusion. Care work is little rewarded or supported by the state or acknowledged by wider society. Around seven million people are carers in the UK. At some point in their lives in the UK three in five people will be carers. 1.4 million people provide over 50 hours of unpaid care per week. 38% of carers are caring for over 100 hours a week.
And caring is highly gendered.
In the UK 58% of carers are women, but in terms of the hours worked the picture is more dramatic. 73% of those receiving carers allowance for caring 35 hours or more per week are women. A report prepared for the European Parliament's Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality found that around Europe women spent 26 hours a week, on average, on caring activities, whilst men only 9 hours.
A report prepared for the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment 2016 found
There is not a single country in the world where men and women do an equal amount of carework. Estimates show that globally, women do 2.5 times more care-work than men. In countries where the care burden is most unequal, this amounts to women spending 10 or more weeks per year on unpaid care compared to men. Even in Sweden, where the distribution of care is most equal, the gap amounts to 1.7 weeks per year
Women’s economic equality is tied to this distribution of care. Despite the enormous social and personal benefits that caring relationships provide, they come with considerable economic and social disadvantages. State welfare support responses to those in caring relationships are often focused on finding ways of helping carers take on paid employment to combine with their caring responsibilities, rather than directly supporting care. Yet carers suffer significantly. A survey by Carers UK (UK’s State of Caring) found that a third of carers had to cut down on food and heating and 45% reporting their financial circumstances affecting their health. Thirty percent found that having taken on caring responsibilities they had experienced a drop of £20,000 in their household income. The situation is far worse in other parts of the world. The UN report referred to above found that care work had a 'significant' impact on personal and physical wellbeing of women, with hardship particularly on women in developing countries.
Carers UK (Facts About Carers, 2015) claims that informal care in the UK is worth around £119 billion a year, more than is spent on the NHS. But the value of caring lies not its economic worth (indeed I am not sure putting an economic value on it is helpful or possible) but its human value for those in caring relationships and for a wider society. Caring goes to the heart of what it is to be a human. Economic productivity does not. Yet in the way society is currently structured it is economic productivity which is privileged and it men who focus on that. Care work is side-lined and undervalued. It is 'women’s work' and they bear the social, economic and personal cost of that. We need to recognise caring as a core social and personal activity and one that needs protecting and enabling. We need a human right to care.