The Time is Now: How to Embrace Equity by Redistributing Unpaid Care Work

The 8 March 2023 celebration of International Women’s Day offers a great opportunity to acknowledge and reward unpaid care workers for their contributions to families and society

International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 carries a clear message of #EmbraceEquity: a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination; a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive; and more importantly, a world where differences are valued and celebrated. Through our actions, conversations, behaviours, and mindsets at work and in society, we can all drive change and appreciate differences.

However, do you know?
  • In Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies, women work an average of four hours and twenty minutes per day performing unpaid care and domestic duties.
  • Women and men experience unpaid work differently depending on factors such as household income, education, marital status, and having children.
  • According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), unpaid care and domestic work make up 9% of global GDP (USD 11 trillion), with women accounting for 6.6% and men for 2.4%.
  • APEC economies report a wide range of unpaid work values, ranging from 5.5% to 41.3%.

In Malaysia, women were already putting in more than 4,000 hours of unpaid care and domestic work even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. This distribution worsened due to the pandemic, which forced more people to stay at home and increase the demands on caregivers. 

Khazanah Research Institute, via a small sample study of 125 individuals found that women spend 1.4 hours more unpaid homemaking each day than men in Kuala Lumpur while the World Bank reported that in 2018, 60% of Malaysian women who did not join the labour force cited housework as their primary reason for not working.

We need to #EmbraceEquity by redistributing, rewarding, and recognising unpaid care work more than ever before.

Women Discussion
The Impact of Unpaid Care Work on Women and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals

Unpaid care work has long been a burden shouldered by women and gender-nonconforming individuals, and the effects of this work continue to be felt today. Unpaid care work encompasses a variety of tasks such as caring for children, elderly relatives, and household tasks. These tasks are often overlooked and undervalued, and the time spent on these tasks leads to a decrease in labour force participation and economic opportunities for those who are primarily responsible for them. This is especially true for women, who are more likely to take on these roles than men.

In addition to the economic effects, unpaid care work also has a psychological and emotional impact on those who are responsible for it. This work can be isolating, as it is often done in the home with little to no monetary recognition or moral support. It can also be emotionally draining and can lead to feelings of guilt and resentment. For those with limited resources, the burden of unpaid care work can be overwhelming, as they are unable to access the same supports and services that are available to those with greater privilege.

Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities

Women and men of poor families and minority races are particularly vulnerable to the burden of unpaid care work due to the intersection of economic limitations, racism and sexism. When there is a lack of subsidised care facilities nearby, they usually work shifts, sometimes leaving home early or returning late at night, with long commutes on public transportation or motorbikes. In these instances, the cost of leaving their children outweighs their basic wages.  

Middle-class and highly educated women also face the double burden syndrome of caring for children and the elderly, which leads many to quit their jobs.  

The lack of access to resources and the systemic discrimination they face in the labour market makes it more difficult for them to participate in the labour force and access the necessary support. This further widens the economic disparities between these groups and others.

Public Policy Solutions

Public policy can be effective in addressing unpaid care work. It can be piloted by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the Economic Planning Unit, the Ministry of Human Resources, and other relevant government agencies to collect statistics on the care economy and use them to inform government policy. While there will always be flaws and inaccuracies in these statistics, they are necessary to understand the country’s care economy and to provide direct income support to its workers.

Initiatives such as paid family leave, subsidised childcare, and flexible work policies can reduce the burden on those who provide unpaid care. In addition to creating more equitable workplaces, these policies can also ensure that those who take on unpaid care responsibilities do not suffer in the process.

Additionally, the Government can provide resources and services to reduce unpaid care work such as providing access to childcare and elder care, as well as other supports to ease the burden on those who are responsible for unpaid care. It is also important for the Government to increase public awareness of unpaid care work and recognise its importance, as this can contribute to the creation of a more equitable society.

Employer Initiatives 

Employers should also be given incentives to advance initiatives addressing unpaid care work.

As an example, the hybrid work-from-home model, which was tested during the Covid-19 pandemic, should be maintained in the endemic period as well. By allowing flexible hours, employers take into account the reality that some young parents cannot afford childcare and that single parents may not have time to send their children to childcare centres. As a result, young mothers and fathers will be able to return to work without having to worry about childcare. Contrary to traditional perceptions, the flexible-hours model could increase work productivity.

Employers can also create more equitable workplaces by recognising and valuing the work of those responsible for unpaid care work. By offering incentives and rewards, providing recognition and support, and a culture of understanding and appreciation, it is possible to create an equitable work environment.

Individual Efforts

There are also steps individuals can take to address the issue of unpaid care work. There are ways to reduce caregivers’ burden, such as organising childcare or eldercare co-ops or asking family and friends for help.

Individuals too can support organisations that advocate for better public policies or provide resources and services to those who are responsible for unpaid care work. As part of this, you can speak out against discrimination and injustice, and create an atmosphere of appreciation and understanding. Thus, individuals can contribute to creating a more equitable and supportive environment.

Working Together for an Equitable Future

Women and gender-nonconforming individuals are disproportionately shouldering the burden of unpaid care work despite their increased participation in labour markets. While no single solution will be sufficient, a combination of public policy, employer initiatives, and individual efforts can result in meaningful progress. This is an issue that affects all of us, and we must work together to create an equitable future.

The time is now to #EmbraceEquity by supporting the development of an equitable, sustainable, and visible care economy for Malaysia.

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