We all rely on the care and attention of others over the course of our lives. That applies just as much to new-born babies as to pre-school and primary school children, but also as young adults, professionals, when we are ill or have a disability, and of course in old age, we benefit time and again in our daily lives from the care work1 of others; our health, well-being, quality of life and social interaction2 all depend on it.
This care work and the mental load3 are predominantly born by women and girls – either unpaid or underpaid. That leaves them with less, sometimes absolutely no time for paid work, for further and continuous education, and thus with less or no income whatsoever. Globally, women carry out over 12 billion hours of unpaid care work (Oxfam study 20205). If they were paid even minimum wage, this sum would be 24 times greater than the turnovers of the tech giants Apple, Google and Facebook put together. And German GDP would be approximately a third higher than reported in overall calculations thus far (Wirtschaft und Statistik 2/20166). However, private care work does not feature among these economic KPIs which serve as a nation’s ‘measure of wealth’, despite being the foundation of all economic activity. Nevertheless, companies take it as read that they can rely upon it without covering a share of the costs. This shows how closely linked the care and the climate crises are: in both instances, resources are exploited for individual profit maximisation, while society is left to bear the consequences.
Economists and economic experts seldom broach the subject. The care sector7 is the largest economic sector, and again here, two thirds of paid care work worldwide is carried out by women. The percentage of women is even higher in Germany. In 2019 it was 84.2% in the medical professions, ambulance service and in care, and as high as 89.6% in childcare. Moreover, the working conditions and wages in female-dominated care professions by no means tally with the high qualifications and multifaceted care services required on a daily basis.
How can it be that, when compared internationally, a nation as wealthy as Germany has such an extremely poor allocation of staff for care professionals and midwives (verdi 201710) and is so far behind Japan, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium? It is a pretentious strategy to seek to master the national care crisis with healthcare professionals and underpaid domestic workers from other countries, often with unclear residence status. Global care chains11 have in the past already seen healthcare and care professionals being enticed away from their countries of origin, where they are also desperately needed (“care-drain”12), or care staff being deployed in ‘24-hour indoor care’ who are wholly inadequately qualified to perform such care duties. The consequences are also highly problematic for those people in need of care and assistance in Germany, as has recently become more apparent than ever. Many domestic workers are returning to their countries of origin due to the Corona pandemic, and it is currently completely unclear as to who will continue to provide private domestic care to those in need.
Although on average women in Germany work one hour more per day than men (unpaid and paid), there is currently a considerable pay gap of 21% (23% worldwide). In the ‘rush hour’ of life in which important decisions relationship, career and family planning decisions are made, women take on more than double the amount of socially required unpaid care work than men. The gender care gap is particularly high at 110.6% at the age of 34 (Klünder 201714). Mothers are often accused of having made an “unfortunate life planning” decision because they decided to have children. Even after returning to work they remain responsible for care work, often also for relatives in need of care, and have to come to terms with losses in income which are justified as “human capital loss due to interruption” (Galler, 199115). This inequality is intensified in times of closed nurseries and schools and increasing numbers of ill people, leading to an even greater burden. The fact that the needs of children were completely overlooked in the initial reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, with the focus exclusively on health issues and economic interests, demonstrates that parents, above all mothers, are expected time and again to master this Utopian balancing act in all aspects of life on their own.
The disadvantageous position of women due to the gender care gap becomes most evident when looking at the pension gap. Up to 75% of women currently aged between 35 and 50 will draw a pension which is below the current Hartz-IV unemployment benefit level (Boll 201616). The unequal distribution and systematic devaluation of care work consequently creates inequality in income, wealth, time and influence between men and women, and exacerbates existing global inequality between rich and poor. Men possess 50% more wealth than women on a global level. By the same token, the gender lifetime gap contrasts the economic, social and political disadvantage of women: on average, men live five years less than women, which can also be explained by (self) care not being part of the hegemonic image of masculinity. However, now is not the time to apportion blame, nor to tot up the advantages and privileges of some and the sacrifices and disadvantages of others. Rather, it is a question of equitable coexistence in families and other areas of responsibility in Germany and worldwide; it is a question of the fair distribution of care work, irrespective of gender, income or origin, it is a question of equality and respect!
We encourage all people who have a care responsibility, be it professional, private or voluntary, to join forces and fight for a fundamental transformation of the system and its values. We appeal to all those people who are currently clearly experiencing how much they personally benefit from care work by others to no longer underestimate the financial and immaterial value of care and to demonstrate their solidarity by supporting the long overdue fight for more care equality, also after the coronavirus pandemic. Care work is not only essential, it is the foundation of our system!
The current situation in spring 2020 has forced us all to pause for thought, the system as we previously knew it has been put on hold. If the easing of restrictions and support programmes are now being discussed to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the various social sectors, the essentiality of care work must be the guideline. We must accept a system being put back into place after the pandemic which is only very partially up to the current challenges and which does not give sufficient recognition to unpaid and underpaid care work.
We therefore appeal to all decision makers in industry, science and politics to support us in this cause and commit to the fair distribution of care work, income and wealth and to corresponding framework conditions. In particular, we request the Federal Government to finally implement the existing laws and agreements and to advocate for financial and immaterial recognition and a fair distribution of care work worldwide. The care and climate crises and current experiences during the coronavirus pandemic must be seized as an opportunity to comprehensively rethink and sustainably change the existing economic model!