Women’s triple load: The crushing weight of care work under capitalism

Mar 8, 2023

Editor’s note: For International Women’s Day, Liberation School is pleased to release the following article, which was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Breaking the Chains magazinetitled “The Women Worker.” A Spanish translation is available here.

Evelyn Coke, a single mother of five, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1970. Relying on her experience tending to the needs of others, she made her living by caring for the elderly, the ill, and the dying. The work was grueling, requiring over 70 hours a week, sometimes three 24-hour shifts in a row, and poorly compensated. She received only $7 an hour, and never once was paid for her overtime hours. To add insult to injury, she was ineligible for health insurance and unable to seek medical attention for most of her life.

After 20 years of wage theft and exploitation, Evelyn sued her employers for the overtime pay she was owed. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Citing the “Companionship Exemption” in the Fair Labor Standards Act of the 1930s, the Court ruled in favor of her employers. This exemption is based on the moral concept that care work is a “labor of love” and therefore cannot be quantified or regulated through the transaction of wages. The Supreme Court’s decision left millions of care workers vulnerable to exploitation and without basic legal protections until 2013. Then the Department of Justice finally ruled that care workers are eligible for minimum wage and overtime pay. States have been slow to apply and enforce the new rules. Care workers employed informally, or not employed at all, remain outside its jurisdiction.

Today, millions of women share Evelyn’s reality. Care work—which is all work, paid or unpaid, providing the basic services to maintain and reproduce life—is disproportionately the responsibility of women. Domestic work, like cleaning, cooking, child care and elder care; and health care, like nursing, home aides, and other supportive occupations in the health-care industry, are considered unskilled work. As a result, these are typically the lowest paid, and the most feminized jobs.

Much of this work is informal and naturalized in society as women’s duty, whether or not it is waged. It is difficult to obtain statistics that truly represent the extent of women’s labor in this sector. But the numbers we do have demonstrate the dramatic gender gap in this essential work. The International Labor Organization estimates there are at least 67 million domestic workers over the age of 15 worldwide. Of those 67 million, 80% are women. In reality, this number is likely much higher. Home health aides provide a good example: one of the fastest growing occupations in the United States, it typically pays under $30,000 a year. If we expand our perspective to include all forms of informal work, 1.6 billion people across the globe worked in the informal sector before the pandemic, and 60% are women.

Gender is not the only factor. The population of care workers has an overrepresentation of oppressed nationalities, immigrants and, where this is relevant, lower castes. Half of low-wage U.S. health-care workers are people of color. Across the world, 17% of care workers are migrants. Again, these numbers are certainly underestimates.

This is just the care work considered waged work. In the patriarchal and capitalist society in which we live, most care work occurs in the home without recognition, even though it is essential for maintaining the workforce on which capitalism depends. Oxfam estimates that women are responsible for 75% of all unpaid care work globally, equal to 12.5 billion hours a year, and $10.8 trillion USD of subsidized value for the global economy. For reference, that is three times the amount of the global tech industry.

As the pandemic spread across the world, causing dramatic disruption in the daily functioning of capitalist economies, it may seem care workers were finally getting recognized as the essential workers they are. Governments and corporations alike made mainstream the category of essential workers, celebrating their heroic deeds as they risked their lives every day to keep society running.

To point out the irony here: Though deemed essential, most capitalist societies did not provide enough material protections for the workers they applauded, nor did these workers have a choice in risking their lives every day for a wage. Staying with the numbers, of which there are few, let’s investigate the consequences of this crisis on the conditions of women making up the majority of essential workers.

First, there is loss of employment accompanying economic crisis: The 1.6 billion informal workers, majority women, lost 60% of their income in the first month of the pandemic.  In Latin America and the Caribbean, there was an 80% income loss. In Brazil, 55% of Black women reported the pandemic put their livelihoods at risk. Across the world, domestic workers relying on private employment lost their jobs as middle- and upper-class families closed their homes to prevent COVID-19 infection. Often, for those who did not lose their jobs, they faced working longer hours and more difficult tasks without extra pay.

Then there is the added burden of unpaid care. With closed schools, unsafe and overwhelmed medical centers, and sick family members, obligations of household and family life doubled or even tripled. Women were forced to leave the workforce in unprecedented numbers. In the United States, named in a recent study “A Woman’s Nation,” the economy lost 140,000 jobs by December 2020, all held by women. This retreat from the workforce has social as well as economic consequences.  When the home remains a private space where patriarchal, capitalist values are enforced and reinforced, rates of domestic violence increased worldwide throughout the pandemic. We do not need to quantify the consequences of financial dependence on a male head of household to understand the danger for social rights it represents.

And then there is the great risk to health. For the numbers, 73% of COVID-19 cases reported among health-care workers affected women. During the height of the pandemic, in May 2020, 87% of nurses reported having to reuse personal protective equipment and 27% of nurses reported having been exposed to COVID-19 without PPE. Low wage workers are often seen as less valuable, especially in private employment. Accounts of families testing themselves regularly for the virus, but never testing their maids, demonstrate the social relations devaluing the one providing the essential work.

Capitalist states, scrambling to protect profit above all else, offered no viable paths to protect the women whose work subsidizes the economy, reproduces the workforce and sustains life. But the global working class has been building solutions before and during the pandemic. Community care, or mutual aid, has long been a feature of working-class culture and methods of survival in a world where the state will not provide the basic necessities for life.

In Argentina, Movimiento Transexual Argentino provided more than 500 transgender people who had lost their source of income regular meals through a community kitchen project. In Brazil, the Movement for Landless Workers fed communities through produce deliveries and more, and defended their encampments against eviction. In South Africa, the Abathlali baseMjondolo (Shackdwellers movement) built communes for the unhoused with schools, food production, roads, and cultural centers, and fought to free their women leaders from political imprisonment and abuse.

Breaking from an international tradition of community care, in the United States, mutual aid tends to be short-lived. We saw neighborhoods and collectives quickly come together to support the food insecure, the ill, and the most vulnerable further threatened by the pandemic such as the Philadelphia Liberation Center’s “Unity & Survival” food assistance program.

Socialist governance allows for community care to reach a higher scale. In Kerala, India, the state provided for thousands of displaced and unemployed migrant workers. Society quickly reorganized itself to provide the food, shelter, and health care that made it possible for all to take the necessary quarantine and distancing measures to prevent infection. Cuba, under a 60-year blockade, protected its population and provided significant aid to the rest of the world as well. There are immeasurable lessons from China’s example, in which community volunteers carried out regular testing, sanitation, and food delivery throughout the worst months of the crisis.

It is a tragedy Evelyn Coke never received justice. When she reached retirement age and became eligible for Medicaid, she was already close to kidney failure and had to undergo dialysis three times a week. When she died at 74, her son asserted that bed sores had contributed to the deterioration of her health, a condition she spent her life alleviating in others.  Her bravery is an example. History is a guide: With organized struggle, the super-exploitation of marginalized women can become a thing of the past. The socialist world that Alexandra Kollontai saw so clearly, that revolutionary women throughout history push us to build, will distribute the burden of care among us all so that it is no longer a crushing weight. Rather, it is a value, a common cause, a priority at every level of society.

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