I have just returned from the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto, Canada. Like the Olympics, this is held every four years in a different part of the world. With about 5000 people registered and big-name researchers and theorists attending from around the world, the congress provides a unique opportunity to take a global and comparative view of social developments.
Care and caregiving emerged as major topics this year, with no less than eight separate sessions scheduled at the congress. This is the first time these topics have received such prominence.
At the level of basic social theory, this is long overdue recognition that care is an essential condition for human life. Without care, individuals, families, communities and nations could not exist. Nor could the international economy. Understanding the dynamics of how care is organised, how its provision changes under different social conditions, and how these arrangements affect other parts of social life must be regarded as key tasks for the discipline.
In the research presented and in the ongoing debates at the congress, much attention was given to the ‘crisis in care’. This concept was first used to describe the emerging situation in advanced societies, where the need for care changed and expanded at the very time that women increasingly entered the workforce in search of careers and paid employment.
The crisis in care soon came to refer also to economic and political problems encountered as a result of the need for policy responses that could help provide alternative forms of support – including more and better childcare, and care for ageing populations and people of all ages with disabilities.
Increasingly, the crisis in care is seen by social researchers as an international crisis. This reflects the fact that in many so-called wealthy countries, stopgap measures have emerged that rely on female domestic care workers from developing countries. In this approach, care is typically provided by women employed by families as live-in domestic workers who receive minimal weekly or monthly payments, along with board and food.
These domestic care workers may be from disadvantaged national communities, such as African-Americans or Hispanics in the US, or from rural communities in modern urbanised China or India. In the US, Canada, many Western European countries and increasingly in Asia, they come from economically disadvantaged countries and are granted a temporary work visa for a year or two each time. This is usually granted only to the woman worker, who, if married, is therefore forced to leave her children and husband in their homeland.
Such domestic care workers typically earn much less than other local workers. They are also responsible for sending back what meagre savings they can to support their own family at home.
Often the insecurity of such employment and residency status is aggravated by the fact that householders may confiscate the care worker’s passport and threaten to take her to the police or immigration authorities if she complains or does not do all that is demanded of her.
This model is not one we are very familiar with in Australia. To my mind it reflects traditional employment patterns in feudal societies, where the poor were taken in by wealthy families to provide household support. Upstairs/downstairs, a world of subservient butlers, nannies and maids. Such domestic employees have few, if any, rights.
With the exception of family daycare, childcare services in Australia and New Zealand, as well as a number of comparable countries, are generally provided by employed staff who meet professional training requirements and are employed and paid under national pay awards. Similar arrangements are found in aged care and in disability support.
Outside the family, alternative forms of assistance may involve volunteers. For example, in Meals on Wheels services, such volunteers generally work under carefully supervised conditions and are held accountable by the organisations for which they work.
In Australia, there have been calls by some for the introduction of short-term work visas with restricted employment rights. This could be nannies in childcare, or care workers in the aged and disability fields. Those in favour argue that the cheap cost of such labour would reduce the costs of care, making it more widely accessible. Such a program would be likely to displace the existing workforce in aged and childcare, undercutting what are acknowledged as at best modest wages.
There are echoes of such an approach in the rise of disruptive internet-based care matching services. It sounds cute and friendly. Like on a dating site, potential employees post a profile online, while those in need of care look through the profiles, select and try out potential employees, then pay them directly. Of course, there is also a fee paid to the hosts of the web service, typically as high as 10 or 20 per cent of each hourly payment. But as they are not actually the employers and have never met the care workers, the web hosts take little or no responsibility for the quality of the care provided or the security of care workers.
Sadly, the research presented at the congress suggests the direct employment approach is not a solution to the crisis in care – it is rather a major contributing cause, exacerbating, rather than relieving problems.
I came away thinking of the famous warning: Don’t try this at home!
Michael Fine is an honorary professor in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.Do you have an idea for a story?
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