Care, the market economy and gender equity – how is politics to find a balance?

young girls in sience

Finding an economic, social and bio-political balance between production and social reproduction, between private households and the market is a central task for the state. In western welfare states this is achieved through social security; by dividing care between the family, networks of solidarity, the private sector and the public sector (Sharah Razavi calls this the care diamond)1; policies directed at influencing birth rates; and the regime of migration which attracts the workforce it needs in both the market and the care economy.

Separating the care economy from the market economy

Political mediation between production and social reproduction must bridge the artificial gap between the market and care economy. As Karl Polanyi argues2, since industrialisation, production has no longer been ‘embedded’ in a social and ecological context. Instead, care, subsistence and reproduction have become separated from the economy and only salaried and marketable work is seen as productive and adding value. Even though it is intimately connected to the market, unpaid care work is seen as unproductive and is therefore constantly appropriated much like a natural resource. Capitalist value creation relies heavily on a cushion of mostly unpaid care work by women, as well as networks of social security and reproduction. Value creation is dependent on the resilience of nature and the constant exploitation of its resources. This division was established through neoclassical economics. In this understanding neither carers nor the water cycle are viewed in economic terms nor are they seen as creating value.

This subordinates the rationality of the care economy, which is based on the principles of well-being, human development and emotionality, to the functional logic of the markets which aim for efficiency, profit maximisation and growth. Subsequently, care work is undervalued even when it occurs in the form of salaried employment. Modules and strict time tables dictate efficiency and subdue care work to market forces. Yet education and care have their own cycles, times and asymmetrical relations (relations not based on exchange3) and this is continually used to justify low market prices and low levels of pay for this kind of work.

At the same time this implies that whilst capitalist markets appropriate care capacities, they also hollow out the social and moral principles such capacities are based on. An example is the way welfare organisations set up employment agencies as subcontractors. This forces employees to be more flexible and accept rates of pay which have not been agreed upon through collective bargaining (meaning they are paid less) but this leads to greater efficiency. Carers attending home care patients are neither paid travel expenses nor are they paid for the extra attention they give to patients outside of their tight schedules.

This separation of the economy into care and production, into unpaid and paid, and low value/high value work is strongly connected to the hierarchical gendered division of labour because care is seen as a core female competency and constructed as women’s ‘natural social capital’.4 Women are therefore expected to take over care responsibilities even when they take on salaried employment. Faced with the increasing number of working women, the central question for all societies is who should take care of the children, sick and the old in the future.5 This question is being posed again in the debate on the ‘compatibility of work and family life’.

The contradictions inherent in the system: the division of the economy into two tightly connected parts; the way work is valued differently; the opposing functional logics; and the assignment of skills and work according to gender at a time of changing gender roles, leads to permanent and/or periodic crises. The crises in the social reproduction of society and the care economy which include the problems of compatibility, insufficient public facilities, the shortage of nursing staff in hospitals, staff shortages in general, and the low salaries paid for child care, all demonstrate that the system is being pushed to its limits and that it is no longer sustainable.

Family and gender political approaches or: go and take care of yourselves!

How does politics mediate between production and social reproduction when faced with such inherent contradictions? Western welfare states deploy a range of social benefits, public infrastructure, market and legal regulations to coordinate how care work is divided between the sexes, households, and the market and the public sector. When comparing the social policies of ‘capitalist welfare regimes’ Gosta Esping-Andersen (1990)6 noted three types of social reproduction: 1) the social democratic regime found in Scandinavia, 2) the conservative regime oriented around the male breadwinner such as is the case with Germany, and 3) the liberal, market and private-sector regime found in the USA.

The Scandinavian welfare states and France attempted to solve the problem of incompatibility at the societal level caused by increasing numbers of women in salaried employment by developing policies aimed at creating more childcare places and increasing the length of the school day. In contrast, German policy reflects shifts within the labour market and the erosion of the model of the male breadwinner. At the same time, it also reflects the fear that Germany’s low birth rate could lead to lasting problems for economic growth. In Germany, pensions are now linked to the amount of time spent caring for family members, and child benefit is being used to create incentives for fathers to care for children. Even though this goal is still very far from being achieved, these are family-oriented solutions aimed at strengthening gender equity. The new law concerning social insurance is similarly intended to mobilise family members of both sexes to help in the care of the elderly.7

Generally speaking, political measures which mediate between the contradictions and inequalities in economics must aim at both if the whole system is to change. Including men in care and organising care for the elderly inside families would have to be combined with proactive measures to ensure equality on the labour market. This would mean more part-time jobs for men, and more women in full-time jobs and leading management positions. It would also mean an end to the gender based division of labour: more men would have to work in jobs now typical for women and more women in jobs typical for men. Importantly the salary gap between men and women would also have to be closed. Yet this should not be understood as going against the need, for example, to introduce maternity leave for men or to work on other specific individual improvements. But if we are to initiate change in this complex system, individual measures will not suffice. Instead, broader and integrated concepts for gender equity in care and the market will be needed. Furthermore, the provision of the same benefits to parents who raise their children at home (Betreuungsgeld) as those provided to parents who send their children to nursery would actually strengthen the role of families in the care economy, take the burden from the state and keep parents as carers away from the labour market. In general, it is unlikely that this will help achieve equality in care and the market economy.

Labour market policy solutions or: one swallow does not make a summer

Politics in Germany aims to solve the problem of the incompatibility of work and care by implementing labour market and migration policy measures. By turning private households into places of employment and increasing the number of people who work in the domestic family environment, care is being organised along the lines of economic criteria. While this leads to high levels of flexibility on the one hand, it also leads to increasingly low levels of pay on the other. This new growth sector has now become a model for precarious employment practices. In fact a large share of the work undertaken in this sector is done by the working poor: people who are poor in spite of having a job. This neither changes the hierarchical gendered division of labour nor is it likely to raise the public recognition of care work.

Although late, the introduction of minimum wages in the care sector as well as the legalisation of the temporary migration of carers from Eastern Europe to care for the elderly does show that politics can adapt to the demographic realities of an aging society with its higher need for care. Although a minimum wage shows a certain amount of social recognition for carers, the growing pay gap in care, which is linked to the lack of social recognition the sector receives, needs to be closed and this means introducing a maximum wage in other sectors.

After the nursery school strike in 2009 one nursery carer commented: ‘Our strike was not about getting one or two more ergonomic chairs, what we wanted was recognition for our work’. With their strike at the peak of the global crisis, which was very well received by the general public, care workers implicitly raised the question as to which work is actually needed for the system to function. For parents as well as for families with elderly persons in need of care the answer is clear: the social reproduction of society rests on a stable care economy made up of paid and unpaid care, and education. It is this which provides the basis of a functioning labour market. Politics also answered this question, but in a very different manner and so demonstrated its commitment to the finance and export sectors. The demand by nursery school workers for more recognition of their work goes beyond simply asking for small salary rises or improvements in working conditions. If more recognition is to be granted to care work, then the division between productive and ‘unproductive’ work must be overcome, and this means completely changing our views on the work needed to maintain society. Improvements in salaries and working conditions are in this sense a necessary but very limited beginning which do not ‘trouble’ the system enough to lead to structural change.8

The relevance of care work to the economy became clear during this crisis, because domestic service provision proved immune to it. Even the feared reduction in migrant workers employed in households was largely avoided. But to conclude from this that women in service provision ‘simply have the better jobs’9 cynically ignores the precarious working conditions and the enduring lack of social recognition given to care work as well as the discrimination suffered by migrants.

Possible approaches in migration policy, or how to ignore the problems

For decades Germany has tried to find market-oriented solutions to the crisis faced by the care economy by changing immigration policy. In the 1960s 30,000 nurses were needed to work in German hospitals. Through private agencies and church networks 8000 nurses from South Korea were ‘irregularly’ contracted; in 1971 their contracts were made regular through government agreement. These were highly skilled nurses, and most of them had been trained in surgery. Nonetheless, neither their skills nor their qualifications were officially recognised and so they were employed in low-skilled caring jobs as assistants to feed and wash patients. In South Korea the emigration of so many nurses meant that hospitals outside of the cities were unable to maintain an adequate level of medical care. Faced with a crisis in 1977 the German government demanded the immigrants return home.10

In this case a crisis occurred at the international level: a lack of carers in a rich country was solved by attracting carers from a less well off country, which in turn led to a lack of carers in the migrants’ country of origin. Today, this pattern is being repeated in many areas of care work: 85% of Philippine nurses work abroad; 20,000 highly trained doctors and nurses leave southern African each year, and this in turn leads to further migration. For example, the void created by the emigration of highly trained South African employees to Britain is filled by recruiting highly trained employees from Zimbabwe and Cuba.11

When women migrate to work as poorly paid cleaners, nannies and nurses for the elderly in the north, this care drain also impacts negatively on the care resources available in the households of countries in the south and the east. Migrants leave the care of their own children in the hands of their daughters in these transnational care chains or pay neighbours a few cents whilst they care for other people’s babies in the north. Ehrenreich, Hochschild and Parreñas have called this export and import of care services the global care exchange,12 in an analogy to the global value chain created by the production and trade of goods.

Whether women from the countryside and slums work in middle class homes in the city, or migrants from the Philippines are employed as domestic workers or nurses in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia or Italy, care is always transferred from poorer to richer households and countries, and weakens the care economy in the countries of origin.13 The appropriation of care capacities by such transnational care chains represents a neo-colonial relationship between North and South and neo-feudal relationships between employers and domestic workers. At the same time it confirms women’s gender-specific potential as carers.

If migrants’ opportunities on the labour market and their living conditions are to be improved temporary stays and the circular migration of carers will have to be legalised. The same applies to the recognition of qualifications from foreign countries, the introduction of basic working standards and eligibility for social insurance. Such policies would secure a country’s provision of care services while legalising its transnational redistribution – although it does not take into account the social costs to migrants and the care economies in their countries of origin. In this way a crisis in care is managed by exporting it. This shows that migration and globalisation neither break the hierarchy existing between efficiency and care-oriented work nor do they dissolve the social hierarchies between North and South. On the contrary, integration into the market, and the transnational transfer and ethnicisation of care tend to reinforce gender-specific roles in care and lead it to be devalued. Migration policy measures are then ineffective here.

Care: putting the economy back on its caring feet

By introducing policies such as child benefit (Elterngeld) the statutory right to day nurseries, plus a market for family-oriented services, the government has tried to reorganise social reproduction in a way which serves the needs of the neoliberal economy. The most important aims in the economy are to maintain jobs and ensure growth and competitiveness. But in spite of the promises and statutory rights, the German state still seems unable to find the funds needed to expand public infrastructure. Here realpolitik clashes with a lack of public funds, caused by neoliberal measures such as misguided tax policies aimed at creating investment incentives. Democratisation means implementing participatory budgeting and gender budgets to decide how money should be spent both at the local and national level, as well as defining and protecting common well-being and public goods, defining to which degree for example the material and social infrastructure should be expanded, and how to strengthen and expand the public sector.

Once more this demonstrates that a redistribution and enhancement of the status of care work must begin with small, localised and personal changes. At the same time, it must also take into account the entire economy. The reorganisation of social reproduction and the care economy is also about re-politicising and democratising the economy, work, consumption and social security. From a feminist point of view emancipatory approaches towards a solidarity economy should aim to overcome the divide between production and social reproduction.

Such an approach would fundamentally question the capitalist, money-centred, resource and energy intensive market economy, which in western welfare states is tightly linked via politics to employment, wealth, consumption and social security. We need to ask ourselves whether growth and accumulation should continue to be the main forces behind the economy and the labour market. Could the focus not move to local resources, internal markets, and the creation of well-being and social security outside of the growth and return-oriented logic of the markets? And what kind of consumption and which resources do we need for a good life? We need to decide what kind of growth and wealth we actually want.

The example of nursery care and education shows that the concept underlying the care economy is also a concept of growth. But it is oriented towards human and socially defined growth, whereas growth in the capitalist market economy is merely aimed at accumulating money: it is growth in purely economic terms. If we are guided by values such as a good life for all, social and gender equity and ecological sustainability, instead of concentrating on growth and accumulation, the economy will have to be changed and placed on its caring feet. For this to happen people, values and understandings will have to change, but this will have to go hand in hand with structural change to the economy.


1 Razavi, Shahra (2007): The Political and Social Economy of Care in a Development Context: Contextual issues, research questions and policy options, UNRISD, Geneva


2 Polanyi, Karl (1977/1944): The Great Transformation. Politische und ökonomische Ursprünge von Gesellschaften und Wirtschaftssystemen. Wien

3 See the article by Maren Jochimsen

4 Lutz, Helma (2008): Vom Weltmarkt in den Privathaushalt. Die neuen Dienstmädchen im Zeitalter der Globalisierung, Opladen & Farmington Hills

5 Folbre, Nancy (1994): Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and Structures of Constraint. London

6 Esping-Andersen, Gosta (1990): The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Cambridge

7 See the article by Maria Kontos

8 Sybille Frehr, VERDI, Stuttgart, 29.1.2010 during ‘Das andere Davos 2010’ in Basel

9 See the comments on the problems in social systems and on social change in: Bourdieu, Pierre (1982): Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft, Frankfurt

10 Der Soziologe Hans Bertram zitiert in: Spiegelonline 30.4.09

11 Sun-Ju Choi/You Jae Lee (o.J.) Umgekehrte Entwicklungshilfe - Die koreanische Arbeitsmigration in Deutschland, Goethe Institut Seoul, Many nurses did not want to return to South Korea and during the church conference held in Berlin in 1977 declared that ‘We came because German hospitals needed staff and we helped Germany. We are not goods to trade with. We will go back when we want to go back’.

12 UNFPA (2006): Weltbevölkerungsbericht 2006. Der Weg der Hoffnung. Frauen und internationale Migration, Hannover, 30

13 Ehrenreich, Barbara/ Hochschild, Arlie (eds) (2003): Global Woman. Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, New York; Parrenas, Rhacel Salazar (2003): Servants of Globalization. Women, Migration, and Domestic Work. Stanford

14 Widding Isaksen, Lise/Sabasivan, Uma Devi/Hochschild, Arlie (2009): Die globale Fürsorgekirse, in: WestEnd, 6.Jg, Heft 2, 56-79