It is time to recognise the value of unpaid care work in economic growth

India needs to invest in overall care infrastructure. It will not only enable women to keep their positions in the workforce, create a new sector, but also accelerate economic growth

Updated: Jun 28, 2024 12:39:03 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

The world is witnessing a high proportion of dependents, partly on account of demographic transitions. The World Economic Forum reports that one in six people globally will likely be over 60 in the next six years. However, they are not the only ones who are vulnerable and dependent. People with special abilities or chronic illnesses, accident/incident victims, children, and others are also highly dependent on others for care and support.

The need for wide-ranging care solutions has never been more pressing.  For the uninitiated, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines care work as: "The exercises and relationships involved in achieving the physical, mental, and emotional necessities of kids and adults, old and young, physically weak and able-bodied."

Life expectancy is increasing thanks to better medical and healthcare facilities. However, so are lifestyle diseases thanks to lifestyle and environmental factors. Add to this, the rise of nuclear families, and these factors create a huge demand for care workers.

Care workers typically comprise trained nurses, domestic help, and traditional live-in and live-out nannies. Thus far, these roles have been traditionally and unfairly associated with women. A report by Oxfam reveals that women in India spend ten times more time on unpaid care duties than men. At home, the time women dedicate to caregiving is equivalent to a full-time job.

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The demands of support are so overwhelming that women often limit their career growth or even drop out of the workforce, thereby substantially impacting not just personal aspirations but also limiting India's GDP growth. Studies show that our country needs 50 percent more women in the workforce to achieve its goal of becoming a $7 trillion economy by 2030. We are losing out on a dynamic and valuable workforce to care giving.

The solution? We need to actively invest in the country's overall care infrastructure. This will enable women to stay in the workforce and also open up a new career or sector for trained care workers. It could also fuel the country's GDP and speed up our journey to becoming the world's third-largest economy.

However, the path is not free of challenges. It will require a mindset shift on multiple levels as a society. To start with, women must overcome the guilt of outsourcing care work. They need to understand that while they genuinely care for the family member in need of care, they may not be professionally trained to do so. Their care is full of emotions that come in the way of expert supervision and sometimes even medical treatment. Professional care solutions are a win-win for all.

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It is also important to fairly compensate care workers. Unfortunately, trained care workers are hired with precariously low wages. It's unfair to expect caregivers to be motivated and engaged in the work if they struggle to make a basic living. Germany is an inspiring example of a "general, statutory minimum wage policy" introduced in 2015. It has ensured greater stability in the country's social security systems. Considering the nature of their demanding roles, caregivers deserve to be covered by national social protection programmes usually extended to formal workers.

Given that India's public spending on the care economy is less than 1 percent of its GDP, the government must actively consider this sector. According to the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO), the sector can potentially create over 11 million jobs by 2030, with 70 percent earmarked for women.

A public-private partnership channelling investment into this sector will catalyse the growth potential. As a country, we lag in primary healthcare support, daycare facilities, and specially-abled care centres. With structured funding, these infrastructure challenges can be addressed. Additionally, care agencies can offer both technical and essential soft skills (like empathy) as training for their care workers, to create a complete ecosystem, addressing both economic and social needs.

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Unlocking the potential of India's care economy entails several layers that must be studied and invested in mindfully. Affordable, safe, and quality caregiving will revitalise the economy and bring a strong social revolution. It will be significant in bridging the gender divide for opportunities. The vision of women-led development in Viksit Bharat @2047 can become a reality if we enable and, more importantly, empower women through a robust and vibrant care economy.

Smita Jatia is vice chairperson at Westlife Foodworld Limited (McDonald's India - West & South).

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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