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Care Economy The Secret Potential of a Six Trillion Dollar Economy

In the 2019 Oscar-nominated movie ‘Roma,’ director Alfonso Cuaron depicted the complex and often overlooked lives of caregivers. Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical movie was a tribute to his nanny, the woman who took care of him since he was nine months old. This beautifully poetic movie tackles one of the pertinent issues of today, paid caregiving. Even though the movie deals with the emotional and societal aspects, there lies an economic side to it as well.

The Theoretical Concept of the ‘Care Economy’
It was Arlie Hochschild who first coined the term ‘global care chain.’ She noticed a pattern where women in developing countries were leaving their own families and migrating to more developed countries to care for the children of affluent families. She further purported that these women, in turn, hire other relatively poorer women to take care of their children. And in doing so, they create “a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring.” Hochschild had an optimistic outlook for this sort of migration. She called it a “global heart transplant,” where love travels from the ‘third world to the first world.’
With the global restructuring in the Post Cold War and the emergence of neoliberal social policies, the partial male-breadwinner model has become obsolete. Even though women from low-income households have always carried the ‘triple burden’ of household, employment, and community duty, first-time middle-class women were also feeling the pressure of these burdens. And to resolve the dilemma of household burdens, middle-class women started to outsource their domestic labour by hiring less privileged women for the task. To sum up, the global care economy was initiated to fill the ‘care deficit’ that had emerged with the expansion of the need for care in developed countries.

Critiques of Hochschild’s Theoretical Understanding
Hochschild’s work was foundational in the sense that it established the care economy as an up-and-coming field of research. However, several scholars pointed out some flaws that required attention. For instance, the biggest criticism of Hochschild’s work might be the presumed heteronormativity and the embedded gender roles of the female migrant. The central premise of her work is the gender binary and the assumption of a feminine, caring subject. It limits caregiving as an occupation only suited for women. Many male-dominated occupations require care as a core element, such as medical professions. But they are not identified as care workers. At the same time, domestic work, which is often regarded as care work, includes other physical activities such as cleaning, laundry, etc. Another crucial point here is to realise if employees view or regard their work as care work or not. Suffice to say, a clear conceptual definition of ‘care work’ is needed to categorise which occupations will fall under paid care work. According to Premilla Nadasen, care needs to more precisely indicate particular tasks that ensure the well-being of another person and should be expanded beyond traditional female-dominated occupations.
Again, Hochschild’s work also reflects her limited perspective on non-western communities. She proclaimed that female caregivers who migrate to developed countries hire similar assistance for their children in their countries of origin. But in most developing countries such as Bangladesh, the children of a female migrant worker would be looked after by a next of kin because they do not have the privilege to hire any help. In such circumstances, it is hard to believe that a spontaneous network of caregivers is created to establish what she regarded as a “global heart transplant.” Moreover, I believe viewing care works through this lens undermines the real purpose of employment, which is earning money. Labelling care work in such a way can possess problems for the employees in negotiating an increase in their wages.

Care Economy in the Real World
The care economy is composed of two types of caregiving- unpaid and paid. Unpaid caregivers are the ones who offer care to their children or spouses, or parents. There is a subset under unpaid caregivers. They are called employed caregivers. Employed caregivers are active participants in the formal economy who also carry out their unpaid care responsibilities. And contrary to them is paid caregiver who offers care responsibilities as part of his/her profession and earns a living from this.
In May 2022, a report published by the Boston Consulting Group exhibited the approximate size of the care economy. According to the report, the care economy, including paid and unpaid caregiving, was on the path to becoming a 6 trillion-dollar economy. However, the BCG report forecasted that the US economy will lose up to $290 billion if it fails to tackle two problems. The first one is identifying the loss of potential wages that is caused by unfilled positions in the care job market. Currently, there are about 1.8 million unfilled care jobs. Three reasons can explain this shortage of supply. First of all, the wage for caregivers is considerably low. Secondly, the definition of care work exudes the image of female occupations, barring men from joining the care workforce. Lastly, there is a huge question of who will provide care to the children of caregivers. And the second problem includes the declining labour force participation due to the unparallel supply-demand ratio. For every 10 unfilled care positions, one full-time employee had to give up his or her job. According to one article in the Washington Post, nearly 100,000 employees had to leave their jobs and take up unpaid care work after the pandemic. This ‘great resignation’ has affected women employees more than their male counterparts. About 80% who dropped out of the workforce because they were unable to get any care facilities were women.

Is Care Economy Relevant to Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh, the involvement of human resources in the formal economy has been on rise significantly for the last few years now. However, in our society, care work majorly falls on women. They are responsible to look after their family. But as time has changed, so has the contribution of women in their households. With the rapid female employment, women now play a crucial role outside of their households as well. According to the World Bank, in 2021, about 31.15% of the national labour force were women. Clearly, with their growing list of responsibilities, they would need as much support as possible to perform all their tasks sincerely. Besides, with the changing socio-economic dynamics, our social institutions are also evolving. It has led to the unprecedented rise of nuclear families. In many nuclear families, both partners engage in the formal economy. In such premises, they need an extra set of hands to help take care of their children and ageing parents.
Daycare centres are one such facility that makes life easier for working parents. An adjacent daycare in the workplace is not only beneficial for the parents but also helps to elevate the productivity of the company. But unfortunately, in Bangladesh, the number of daycares is very low. There are some 63 low-cost government daycares out of which 35 are in Dhaka. There are also some privately run daycares in Bangladesh. Some organisations offer this facility to their employees. But it is not sufficient.
Again, with a huge chunk of the population moving abroad, a care deficit can be seen when it comes to looking after one’s ailing parents. According to UNESCO, at least 44,338 Bangladeshi students went abroad in 2021. With them being far away, a constant worry remains in their heart for their parents’ well-being. A qualified care worker could have eased their tension and solved their problems. So, we can see a slowly but surely growing demand for care economy in Bangladesh as well.
Apart from this, Bangladesh can also grow its economy by focusing on establishing itself as one of the leading care worker supplier countries. This can potentially open a new horizon for Bangladesh’s economy. Bangladesh’s government can provide training to the youth in essential care works and send them to developed countries where the care deficit is significant. However, it is important to ensure a balance in the gender ratio. Care work must be established as a gender-neutral work with both males and females being active participants in the care economy.

Author- Nayeema Nusrat Arora

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