The Progressive Post

Who cares? Why we need a Care Deal for Europe

President of the European Women's Lobby, Chair of the Hungarian Women's Lobby

Care is the backbone of our society. As women still make the majority of carers, their choices in personal and professional life are too often limited. Care is our collective need and shared responsibility. It is time to invest massively into the holistic Care Deal for Europe and move towards an ‘equal-earners/equal-carers’ model.

Care is the backbone of society. Caring for others, and being cared for, at different stages of our lives, is one of the central emotional experiences of our shared humanity. Care is essential for the continuation of society. And in the post-Covid period, it is crucial to strive for a holistic economy for the wellbeing of all. The vast majority of caregivers, whether paid or unpaid, are women. And, for far too long, women’s care work has been taken for granted. 

The Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call and showed, again, how interdependent we all are. It exposed the extent to which society depends on women in providing frontline and essential care services. Women take their lion’s share of both unpaid (informal care) and paid care work, as they form the majority of the workforce in all sectors related to care (health, education, social care, and domestic work). However, this work is often undervalued and underpaid and carries life-long consequences that impact women’s economic independence and access to social rights, particularly pensions. As the astounding gender pension gap of 40 per cent in the EU attests, older women are often exposed to poverty.

For far too long, the chronic lack of affordable, accessible, and high-quality care services in the EU has been a significant obstacle to women’s full participation in all aspects of economic, social, cultural, and political life. To overcome the lack of care services, migrant women, sometimes undocumented and often underpaid, are employed in many countries as domestic workers. This makes migrant female labour in the care sector vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Only nine EU member states have ratified the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, which guarantees protection to women working in the care sector.

This reveals the lack of a real choice on how to combine work and private life and the persistence of gender stereotypes that continue to underpin the division of tasks between women and men at home and within society. Care policies and the provision of care services are therefore pre-conditions for achieving equality between (all) women and men. It is time to move from the outdated male-breadwinner model to a dual equal-earner/equal-carer model. 

A Care Deal for Europe is based on a holistic life-cycle approach that acknowledges that care needs and the provision of care services are essential at every stage of the life cycle. Care is not an issue of dependency but a fundamental human right, an essential part of our collective solidarity, and a safety net that meets our collective care needs and responsibilities towards each other. Care is part of the continuum of the transition to a green economy: caring for the planet and caring for each other go hand in hand. We need a Care Deal to put this continuum on a level playing field with the Green Deal, which equally requires robust measures, including earmarking EU funds to invest in this sector.

Investing in the care economy for affordable, quality, and accessible care structures and services must be the central element of an EU social and green model. It should be provided primarily by the public sector and be available in urban and rural areas to all who need them, taking into consideration the human rights, independence, and empowerment of the care-recipients.

The question now is: does the European Commission’s European Care Strategy address these issues?

First of all, the European Women’s Lobby welcomes the European Care Strategy as a first step towards a Care Deal for Europe. It has finally put care on the political agenda, which is the core of a feminist economic model.

We particularly welcome that women’s long-standing role as the ‘fabric’ of our societies is finally acknowledged. The Care Strategy puts women at the heart as a crucial step in achieving gender equality. It also aims to address our concerns regarding the lack of available, affordable, accessible, and quality services, which we have witnessed for decades. 

On the other hand, we would like to see more effective measures, specifically precise targets for long-term care, and action plans to achieve the childcare targets. While these targets have increased compared to the 2002 Barcelona childcare targets – which 20 years later have still not been met – it is hard to see how the Care Strategy will ensure they are met by 2030. We believe that services for early childcare education and development should be free to ensure that all children – girls and boys – from all walks of life have an equal start in life. This would require substantial public investments but help guarantee that the next generation of both women and men is equipped to shape the world of the future, place care at the core and achieve gender equality. With significant gaps between women and men in the provision of care work, especially unpaid care work, we need an economic and social model that values care, and puts it at the centre. Caring for each other, the planet, children, parents, and persons with specific needs should not be an afterthought but the central purpose of our economic model. That is why we need a Care Deal for Europe. We believe the European Care Strategy provides the first steps in this direction.

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