Time to care about care: New project measures care work’s importance to the global economy

August 17, 2021 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

Care work is difficult, undervalued — and essential. Indeed, it has been described as “the work that makes all other work possible.”

Historically, female family members have been primarily responsible for looking after children, seniors and others with complex care needs. But today, in Canada and other wealthy countries, care work is increasingly provided by migrant workers from distant regions. It is still largely done by women, who remain poorly compensated.

In 2013, Professor Ito Peng began work on a landmark seven-year project designed to study how this new model of care influenced the global migration of care workers — and how, in turn, that migration affected family and gender relations, gender equality, government policy and global governance.

Headshot of Ito Peng outdoors with wind waving in her long hair
Project leader Ito Peng has written extensively on family and gender policies, labour market changes, and the social and political economy of care in East Asia. Photo courtesy of Ito Peng.  

Peng is a professor in the Department of Sociology and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Her project, entitled Gender, Migration and the Work of Care, documented the stories of hundreds of female care workers, focusing mainly on those from the Asia-Pacific region. In studying working conditions, earnings and the day-to-day lives of this group, it revealed deep inequalities between wealthy and poorer countries, by showing how dependent upon one another they have become as a result of the new care model.

Now, Peng is heading up another massive project, for which she has just received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Open Society Foundation. Entitled Care Economies in Context: Towards Sustainable Social and Economic Development, it will unite research teams from eight different countries, span five years and involve 17 different partner agencies.

The project emanates from work done by economists at the American University in Washington, D.C. “Their aim was to measure the size of the care economy, and use that data to develop macroeconomic models,” says Peng, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Policy and is also director of the Centre for Global Social Policy — a research, teaching and training centre within the Department of Sociology.

The Care Economies project is an example of interdisciplinary research in action: in order to develop their models, the economists required a sociologist’s input. “They needed data that would give them information about demographic changes, population dynamics, the amount of time people spend on various paid and unpaid activities,” says Peng. “All these things economists can’t do. So they asked if I could help them, because my skill is in empirical data and analysis.”

While the window is open we have to make sure changes are made, policies are implemented and actions are taken. Because the longer we wait, the worse it will be. 

According to Peng, it’s crucial to show policy makers how important care work is to the economy. It’s also very difficult, since much of this work isn’t factored into a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). “GDP only measures a kind of monetary transaction that happens in the market,” she says. “So work that’s unpaid or informal doesn’t get counted. But if we actually calculated the size of that contribution, we’d be looking at about 20 to 40 per cent of a country’s GDP. That’s a huge amount.”

The pandemic made Canadians realize how much we all depend on high-quality care. The crisis in long-term care homes resulted in the untimely deaths of many senior citizens. Parents struggled both to earn a living and care for children who were locked out of schools and daycares. And far away, migrant workers had to stay home — which in turn caused major problems for them, and for the economies in their home countries.  

“Nations in the Global South use labour export as a form of social and economic development,” Peng says. “In the Philippines, for example, about 10 per cent of their GDP comes from overseas remittance. It’s all in foreign currency as well: in some countries it’s larger than foreign aid.” 

Large projects like those Peng oversees underscore the significance of community-driven research at U of T. “As you can see we can’t do this on our own; our research is driven by real-world issues and experience,” she says. “That’s why a lot of our basic questions and theoretical frameworks come from our community partners. They’re the ones who tell us what the really important questions are. And a project like this is multi-scalar, meaning we are connected not only to local but national and global organizations. So the learning doesn’t just stay at the local level.

With a rapidly aging population, the need for care workers will become more urgent in coming years. Canadians remain concerned: a recent Angus Reid poll showed that a majority of them are open to a two per cent tax hike in order to improve long-term care. And childcare funding was of central importance in the most recent federal budget.

But more needs to happen, according to Peng, who believes that care work must be better paid, better regulated and perceived as more prestigious. At that point, more men may be willing to enter the profession. “The reason this work is undervalued has to do with this pervasive social norm that it’s women’s work. Because women have traditionally done care work for “free” within the household it was has been assigned little or no economic value. Of course this is completely wrong. But that kind of normative shift takes time,” she says. “It can only happen with gradual structural changes.”

And though she is just embarking on her colossal new project, Peng wants these changes to start happening now.

“My worry is that in a post-pandemic world, once things get closer to the new normal, people are going to forget what happened,” she says. “While the window is open we have to make sure changes are made, policies are implemented and actions are taken. Because the longer we wait, the worse it will be.”