Why you should care about unpaid care work

Time to Care banner. Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis.


Oxfam’s ‘Time to Care’ report reveals the scale of global inequality linked to care work, ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

Oxfam Scotland analysis shows the estimated value of unpaid care work in Scotland to be £36 billion, and polling shows 72% of people in Scotland back governments spending more on social security benefits for carers of those who are sick or disabled. Care work includes looking after children, elderly people, disabled people and those with additional needs, as well as daily domestic work like cooking and cleaning.

For many single parents – the vast majority of whom are women – being both the main unpaid carer and breadwinner for their children places them in the challenging position of trying to manage sole caring responsibilities with paid work. The care and welfare of their children is the primary concern of the parents we work with, but in the current economy where paid work is seen as the supreme goal parents often feel that their unpaid caring role, bringing up the next generation is devalued.

Unpaid care work remains a barrier to reaching gender equality. It reinforces discriminatory gender stereotypes that means the many women who are single parents and carers face the exceptional pressures of caring while trying to keep their family out of poverty. The unequal burden of unpaid care work on women and girls contributes to the persistent gender gaps in labour force participation, activity rates, and wages. The unequal burden of unpaid care work on women, especially women in poverty, is a barrier to women’s full enjoyment of their human rights and results in institutionalised inequality.

The Scottish Government has set demanding targets for the reduction of child poverty in Scotland – that by 2030 less than 10% of children will live in poverty. This aspiration is one that will only be achieved if we recognise that the marginalisation of certain groups, including unpaid carers, deepens hardship and reduces life chances, perpetuating a vicious cycle of economic and social exclusion.

We know that a quarter of children in Scotland live in poverty, and as a rich society we should find this unacceptable. It can’t be right that that for children who live with a single parent this figure is even higher at 41%. There is nothing inherent about single parent families which results in such a high proportion of their children living in poverty.

At OPFS we know through working with thousands of single parents that they should be recognised for the remarkable job they do while combining the role of unpaid carer and breadwinner often without any support. This can no longer be ignored, there is a need for greater recognition of the structural sources of poverty and policies need to address these. The participation of single parents and others with lived experience is crucial to give policy makers a deep understanding of the real issues and solutions.

What needs to change in Scotland to ensure we have appreciation of care work, to achieve a fair distribution of caring responsibilities, and to ensure the involvement of parents and carers in decision making?

Recognising and valuing the caring role of single parents is vital and would enable them to make informed choices about paid work that they could balance with their caring responsibilities and enter work that does not keep them in poverty. Key to this is childcare. We welcome the Scottish Governments expansion of early learning and childcare and the focus on quality. However, we hope the next step will be to ensure that the hours and booking arrangements are flexible enough to allow single parents to train, study and take up and progress in employment.

The majority of single parents are women, and many have experienced domestic abuse, so gender inequality is a key issue. UNICEF research shows across Europe, children do better in societies where there is greater equality between men and women.

We are very proud to join with Oxfam Scotland and national carers’ organisations calling for significantly more investment in high quality, flexible social care alongside much improved social security for carers. These changes would support unpaid carers and better protect them from poverty. This is the challenge we face – to hold government at all levels to account to implement policies that will eradicate poverty and ensure people’s rights are put at the centre of policy and practice.

Marion Davis, Head of Policy and Strategy at OPFS.

Read the full press release from Oxfam Scotland here.

The full “Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis” report is available online.

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