Care at work: the ILO's strategy to overcome the care crisis

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(15 March 2022) On International Women’s Day, the International Labour Organization released a report on care laws and standards across 185 countries.

The report highlights that further investment in care could create over 300 million jobs by 2035.

The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted what we already knew: that caring labour is essential to the economy and functioning of society. Despite this, care continues to be in crisis globally and is shouldered by mainly women. The report details the major gaps in legislation that widen disparities in gender inequality. Key areas include length of parental leave; health and safety legislation for pregnant women in the workplace; elder care; and access to adequate childcare.

The report reveals that, despite the ILO recommendation for 14 weeks statutory entitlement to maternity leave, 64 out of the 185 countries surveyed have less than this. Furthermore, 83 countries do not have statutory protection for women’s jobs as they go on maternity leave, making women more vulnerable to dismissal. Despite every country in Europe and Central Asia having at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, 37.7% do not have at least 18 weeks maternity leave - the recommended optimum minimum from the ILO for adequate rest and recovery after childbirth.

Furthermore, the ILO report highlights how access to childcare is essential to bridge gaps and ensure a continuum of care to enable more women access to the workplace and reduce poverty. 12 countries within Europe still lack access to statutory childcare from the ages of 0-2.

Despite this, the report displays some promising trends. There has been a steady increase in countries’ uptake of ILO global labour standards, which in turn has improved global care conditions and begun to plug the gaps. However, more investment in care is needed. The report reiterates the relationship between social dialogue improving protections for women worldwide. Trade unions play an integral role in this. Union rights are in turn women’s rights, and freedom of association and social dialogue is essential to improving protections to deal with the global care crisis.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Maternity rights including at least 14 weeks statutory paid leave and health and safety protection measures at work;
  • An increase in paternity rights;
  • Access to childcare services, as only one in 10 people have access to free childcare services worldwide:
  • Statutory provision of quality elderly care services;;
  • Long-term care services which ensure the dignity of older people; and
  • Working with trade unions and employers in a dialogue to create adequate care policy packages.

Globally, women’s caring labour is undervalued. Quality, democratic public services with adequate workers protections and collective agreements is essential to improving gender parity across Europe and the world. Despite small improvements in legislation over the past few years, the ILO report shows that there is still a long way to go to achieve equality for women and public services will play an integral role.