Every year, at least €242bn is lost due to the so-called ‘unpaid care penalty’ — the loss of earnings due to the lack of shared care responsibilities within households.

This loss is borne mainly by women, who do most of this work, whether it is housework, childcare or caring for dependent and/or elderly relatives.

“Unpaid care work is the main reason why women are outside the labour force,” said Lieve Verboven, director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Brussels, during an exchange on the EU gender equality strategy.

The figures speak for themselves. Some 7.7 million women in the EU do not participate in the labour market because of care responsibilities, compared to only 450,000 men.

In Europe, 80 percent of care is provided by friends, relatives, and neighbours. Work that is neither paid nor supported.

The potential to create new jobs is there. The ILO estimates that unpaid care work amounts to 16.4 billion hours per day, the equivalent of about two billion full-time jobs.

Whether it is paid or unpaid, in the home or in institutions, the care sector is feminised, according to the panel on the care economy organised as part of the Beyond Growth conference.

“All this impacts women’s economic independence, contributes to pay and pension gaps and can lead to an increased risk of social exclusion and poverty,” said MEP Maria Walsh (EPP).

The pandemic has made it even clearer that the sector is “underfunded” and “understaffed” in both formal and informal settings, the MEP added.

In addition to the shortage of workers, the growing need for care in the coming decades and socio-demographic changes will exacerbate an already pressing problem.

Europe’s population is ageing, birth rates are falling and, according to EU Commission projections, the number of people in need of long-term care will rise from 30.8 million to 38.1 million by 2050.

In addition, working conditions in the paid care sector (some 12 million workers) are unattractive, partly due to low and insufficient investment.

(Photo: European Parliament Research Service)

“Care workers are more likely to be in the bottom third of the wage distribution, work part-time and have temporary contracts,” says a report by the European Parliament’s analysis service.

Some of these workers also face intersecting inequalities. More than half of the EU’s cleaners and carers are migrants and, according to the European Labour Authority, half of domestic workers are undeclared, putting them at greater risk of exploitation.

‘Equal earner — equal carer’ model

Momentum is building. In July, the European parliament adopted a resolution calling for more ambitious action at European level.

In September, the commission published its strategy for the EU care sector, which aims to improve access and conditions for carers and care.

However, the EPP MEP is realistic in saying that, despite the urgency of the situation, this strategy will not be implemented overnight.

Policy analyst Dr Meena Fernandes said in December that more needs to be done to reverse this vicious cycle.

“When these needs arise, quality professional care is often inaccessible or unaffordable because of low investment,” added European Parliament Research Service policy analyst Cecilia Navarro.

The pandemic has led to increased investment. Member states have earmarked around 10 percent of European recovery funds for health, economic and institutional resilience.

But the parliament’s resolution calls for more ambition and includes an increase in EU funding among its recommendations.

Greater investment would help close gaps in the care sector and create new jobs in this and related sectors, recommends the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

“Public policies that promote the equitable sharing of unpaid care at home, such as legal leave policies or flexible working arrangements, need to be gender sensitive,” says an EIGE report.

Reducing inequalities and gaps in this sector would also bring economic benefits.

The EPRS points out that promoting this ‘equal earner — equal carer’ model at European level would generate benefits of between €24bn and €48bn per year.

Promoting affordable, high-quality services would generate an additional €90-€160bn.

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