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Care Economy a Key Focus of The Asia Foundation’s Work to Advance Gender Equality

Program Year: 2022

Globally, care workers support over one billion people, including young children, aging adults, and people with disabilities. While some are paid for this work, most care providers are unpaid and lack adequate family support to redistribute care responsibilities. Paid care workers also lack support from their governments in accessing the critical social protections and infrastructure required to deliver the volume and quality of care necessary to meet high and rising demands. However, the activities of individual care workers in Asia and the Pacific—most of whom are women—are significant, essential, and constitute their own “care economy.” Allowing these vital contributions to remain undervalued and under-resourced exacerbates economic and social crises – such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate-induced emergencies – and serves as an enduring barrier to inclusive economic development. 

The care economy is emerging as a significant concern for policymakers as it is socially important and economically large but unequally burdensome. Care work is socially important because the act of caring for people who cannot care for themselves is critical for the health, welfare, and protection of all people, including future generations. Equally important is the right to dignity of care. At its core, care is a basic human right and need that is vital to the health and fabric of society. It is an expression of humanity and a recognition of the interrelationship between all people within a population.

Paid care is also one of the fastest-growing economic sectors and a substantial source of employment worldwide. In the United States, a report published by Melinda Gates’ Pivotal Ventures found that paid care is a $648 billion sector—larger than the $510 billion domestic pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. hotel, car manufacturing, and social networking industries combined.

However, these statistics underestimate the contribution of care providers as a share of economic production because unpaid care provision is not counted in the global gross domestic product (GDP). Data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) across 64 countries shows that more than 16.4 million hours are spent on unpaid care every day and that women’s labor accounts for 76.2% of these hours, which is more than three times as much as men’s. This is equivalent to two billion people working every day for eight hours without remuneration. If value is based on an hourly minimum wage, this would amount to 9% of global GDP, corresponding to approximately US $11 trillion. In other words, if care were considered as its own economy, then it would be the third largest economy in the world (after the U.S. and China) and more than twice as large as global agriculture as a sector. 

In Asia and the Pacific, addressing the imbalances in care provision, quality of care, and work environments take on heightened urgency due to demographic shifts, climate-related threats, and existing gender and cultural norms that place expectations disproportionately upon women to be responsible for all care-related needs. Historically, women in Asia and the Pacific have worked the longest hours globally, with more than half the time spent on unpaid care work. Overall, in Asia, women undertake four times as much unpaid care work as men.

Given the importance of this global issue, The Asia Foundation and a consortium of partners convened a high-level dialogue on the care economy on the eve of the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali. The Bali Care Economy Dialogue took place from November 12-14 and included nearly 80 experts from the government, the private sector, and civil society to focus on effective policies and strategies for building resilient care systems, including The Asia Foundation, the Center for Global DevelopmentOxfam CanadaWeProsper CoalitionUN WomenGlobal Alliance for Care, and International Development Research Centre. Key Asia-Pacific-based partners include the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Gender Lab, Mobile Creches, Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, and the Pacific Disability Forum.

At the meeting, The Asia Foundation presented new research on the care landscape in Asia and the Pacific, with insights and recommendations for regional governments on investing in care. This research will be presented in a forthcoming white paper on The Care Economy.

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