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Caregiver work should be treated like a globally traded commodity: U of T study

Demand for care of elders and children is increasing, but inequality has kept wages low

Close-up photo of Ito Peng

Sociology professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Social Policy, Ito Peng.

The growing importance of care work has created both challenges and opportunities to address racial, economic and gender inequality at home and abroad, says a Faculty of Arts & Science researcher who has been studying the issue for almost five years.

While there are now more people working in nursing homes in the United States than in steel and automobile manufacturing combined, wages and conditions in most of the developed world are often abysmal for care workers, many of them migrant women from less-developed countries, says sociology professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Social PolicyIto Peng.

“The care economy is huge, with major impacts on those involved both as carers and cared-for, and what I’m trying to do in my research is provide information and a larger framework for people to understand how important this is,” says Peng.

“We have to start to treat care work as a form of globally traded commodity, like environmental and natural resources that are often undervalued and inadequately accounted in national economic accounts. I hope to generate a public debate about this. I think once people understand, we can make progressive changes and not try to hire care workers for exploitative wages.”

An aging population and more affluent women in the paid workforce have pushed demand up for nannies and other care workers, but inequality has kept wages low, says Peng.

Inequality has very little to do with merit

“That inequality has very little to do with merit, and more to do with gender, race, and which part of the world you come from.”

For example, because care has long been seen as “women’s work” that was provided for “free” and men are predominantly not involved in caring for children or aging relatives, it has long been undervalued, even though its real value to society is high.

Although the new service-based economies of the 21st century belie that concept, this gender inequality has continued to shape care as low-paid work done primarily by women.

Another level of inequality has emerged as middle class and wealthy women in developed countries such as Canada and the U.S. outsource care work to poor women with little education and few other options for employment.

Significant number of care workers are immigrant women of colour from less- developed countries

A significant proportion of those care workers are immigrant women of colour from less- developed countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, says Peng, the principal investigator for a six-year project on gender migration and care work.

Peng and her colleagues have begun to ramp up a public awareness campaign by posting videos, information fact sheets and stories online. Peng has also co-edited and contributed a chapter for a book — Gender, Migration and the Work of Care — to be published next month.

A global chain of exploitation

The irony of this global socio-economic chain of exploitation and inequality is the interdependency between rich and poor countries that props up their respective economies.

Wealthy women in rich countries are able to focus on earning income by exploiting poor women in less developed countries, who are recruited and incentivized to leave their own families for poorly paid care work abroad because there are no jobs available locally, and remit money back home in foreign currency.

“One cannot function without the other,” says Peng.

“On a global scale, that further intensifies this extreme inequality. And there is a real polarization in the care that children and elderly get based on their income and class.”

A recent study of seven developed countries compared the hypothetical economic impacts of governments investing two per cent of their GDP in care versus construction, the latter being the traditional way things such as infrastructure spending are used to spur economic activity.

In all seven countries, the number of jobs created by investing in care over construction was significantly higher, and there were direct and indirect social and economic benefits as well, such as greater gender equality.

While the study did not include Canada, “from what I’ve read and the calculations I have seen, my hypothesis is the outcomes would be very similar,” says Peng, adding that she’d like to prove that in her next project.

“If we invest two per cent of our GDP in the care industry rather than construction, I think we’ll get a bigger return on the investment, more employment and more direct and indirect social and economic benefits,” she says.

“And the end result will not only be children and older people with better care, social and health outcomes, but also more gender equality, which is something we all want.”

The research was supported with funding from National Institute of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Research Foundation of Korea, and the National Science Foundation.

The research was supported with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).