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Why the Arab World Needs a Care Work Revolution

On International Women’s Day, International Labour Organization (ILO) regional director for Arab States Dr. Ruba Jaradat calls on societies and governments to recognize the contribution of women care workers who uphold our economies.

Written by Dr Ruba Jaradat Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Out of an overall workforce of around 1.45 million in Lebanon, an estimated 150,000 to 220,000 are women migrant domestic workers.Leila Alaoui/ILO

Around the world this morning, millions of women are on their way to work. Globally, we know that most women prefer to be in paid employment, and that most men agree. The progress of women in the workplace is to be celebrated, but it is not without its challenges.

Both women and men also acknowledge that a lack of access to care – in the form of childcare, care for the disabled and elderly and housekeeping services – is a major obstacle facing women at work.

National development plans in the Arab states have generally overlooked the care industry as a productive economic sector. However, shifting dynamics in our region demand change.

Today, governments can focus more on care work, both as an area of employment growth and as a means of supporting women’s equal opportunities in the world of work.

Staffing the Second Shift

Throughout the course of our lives, every one of us will rely on the care of others. Care workers support the raising of children and youth during critical stages of development, and support the elderly and people with disabilities to live with dignity.

Changing demographics within Arab society – lower birth rates and longer life expectancy – point to increasing care needs. Meanwhile, living arrangements are evolving, with an increase in nuclear family structures.

A lack of affordable institutionalized state care has meant that responsibility for care predominately falls on individual households. As more Arab women move into the workforce, they continue their responsibility for caring for their families at home, undertaking what is known as the second shift.

Those who can afford it employ care workers, who relieve women in the household from undertaking the second shift. In our region, there is a preference for home-based care, predominately delivered by migrant workers, often in poor conditions.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. The growing demand for care work will continue to create a large number of jobs in the coming years. The sector comprises a variety of skilled professions in childcare, early childhood education, disability and long-term care, elder care and domestic work – opening up many opportunities for Arab women to fill these positions. This would fall in line with targets for increasing female labor force participation rates, which currently stand at global low of 21.2 per cent.

Evidence from other regions demonstrates that a strong care economy boosts women’s participation in the labor force. In Japan, the “womenomics” initiative, which targeted childcare waiting lists and increased parental leave, has seen the country’s female labor participation rate rise to 70.1 percent from 62.7 percent in 1997 – higher than the United States.

Protecting Care Workers

Delivering quality care goes hand in hand with ensuring decent working conditions. But the domestic workers who provide care services to households in the region often find themselves excluded from labor law and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

This is partially due to the fact that care work is undervalued as a contributor to economic development, and the various skills involved are not adequately recognized. It also stems from the fact that care is typically seen as the work of women, often migrant women.

To build a care sector that benefits workers, care recipients and society overall, Arab governments should take crucial steps regarding the nature and provision of care policies and services, and the terms and conditions of care work.

This must begin with bringing care work under the full protection of the labor law, in line with international standards, including the principles of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention. Governments should also create a comprehensive system for training, skills development and skills recognition, ensuring that workers are able to meet emerging care needs.

Governments also need to explore flexible work arrangements, to ensure that care work delivery is in line with employer demands, including the option for part-time and live-out worker models, allowing workers to shift between employers.

We need new organizations that represent the interests of both workers and employers to ensure that policies and programs reflect evolving needs and contexts.

We outline these recommendations in our latest report on achieving a mutually beneficial situation for households and domestic workers through improved regulation and its effective enforcement.

Taking action in support of domestics workers will ensure the establishment of a dynamic and resilient care economy that creates jobs for national workers in the public and private spheres, helps promote the work-life balance for which all families strive, provides high-quality care and safeguards decent working conditions for all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.

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