Women worst hit as global economic inequality spirals out of control: Oxfam report

As global economic inequality scales unprecedented heights, it's the local workers who get the short end of the stick.
Updated Jan 21, 2020 01:48pm
Sexist economies are fuelling the inequality crisis further by putting the heavy and unequal responsibility of care work on women.—AFP
Sexist economies are fuelling the inequality crisis further by putting the heavy and unequal responsibility of care work on women.—AFP

The international development charity Oxfam published its annual report on global inequality, outlining how the phenomenon is shockingly entrenched and vast, enabling a wealthy elite to accumulate vast fortunes at the expense of ordinary people, particularly women and girls who provide unpaid — and underpaid — care work.

According to the report, the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 per cent of the planet’s population. With the number of billionaires having doubled in the last decade, our sexist economies are fuelling this inequality crisis further by putting a heavy and disproportionate responsibility of care work on women.

Women do more than three-quarters of all unpaid care work; they often have to work reduced hours or drop out of the workforce because of their care workload. According to the report, across the globe, 42 percent of women of working age cannot get jobs because they are responsible for all the caregiving, compared to just six percent of men.

The report lists recommendations to “close the gap between care workers and the wealthy elite who have profited most from their labour”, from ending extreme wealth to challenging harmful norms and sexist beliefs by building an economy that values what truly matters to society.

Relevance for Pakistan

Speaking to, Country Director Oxfam Pakistan, Muhammad Qazilbash, said, "The global inequality report especially resonates in Pakistan because we see inequality being on the rise. In our country, domestic workers' actual expense and cost of living far exceed the minimum wage they are given. But what's worse is that there is a lack of recognition about this."

Qazilbash continues, "About 60% of our country's agriculture is dependent on women, but the wages they receive during harvest season is not reflective of the labour and effort they put into their work. Additionally, when they go back home they have to cook, clean and take care of their children. There's an extra burden on them only because they are women."

"The financial provider can concentrate on being productive and getting the pay-cheque because things are sorted at home and they don't have to worry. Sadly, domestic work and the management of the house is not considered 'work' in our society. Here, we don't realise that the actions have value."

"The report's relevance for us is that we need to recognise and acknowledge how we perpetuate economic and gender inequalities. At the same time, we need to learn to value under-appreciated work of domestic labourers, domestic workers and caregivers."

Here are key highlights from Time to Care — Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis:

Billionaires and extreme wealth are signs of a failing economy

Examining the origins of the wealth of the super-rich, and how that wealth is deployed, casts serious doubt on their value to our economy and our society. It also shows how their wealth is built on billions of hours of exploitative underpaid and unpaid care work, which is mainly done by women and people from ethnic minorities.

Analysis shows how, partly as a result of increased monopoly power, returns to rich shareholders have increased dramatically while real wages have barely increased at all. Between 2011 and 2017, average wages in G7 countries grew by 3%, while dividends to wealthy shareholders grew by 31%. Behind corporate power and corporate actions is increasingly the power of super-rich shareholders.

The view from the bottom: All work and no play

Around 735 million people are still living in extreme poverty and many of those who have risen above the extreme poverty line of $1.90 are still just one hospital bill or one failed harvest away from slipping below it again. It is projected that hundreds of millions of people will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030. As of today, the majority of these will be women and girls: with less income and fewer assets than men, they comprise the greatest proportion of the world’s poorest households, and that proportion is growing. They also shoulder the greatest amount of unpaid care work, which in addition to creating wellbeing, adds value to the economy to the tune of at least $10.8 trillion.

It is no accident that men own 50% more of the total wealth in the world than women, as economic policy and practice favour men the world over. Globally, more men than women own land, shares and other capital assets; indeed, in many countries laws prevent women’s ownership of such assets. In recent decades neoliberal economic policy has increased the reliance of the economic system on sexism.

The value of care

Women carry out 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, which is equivalent to two billion people working eight hours a day with no remuneration. When unpaid and paid care work is taken together, globally women do the equivalent of six weeks a year of full-time work more than men. It is not that women do not work, it is that they work too much, and the majority of their work is unpaid, unrecognised and invisible.

Women in rural communities and low-income countries spend up to 14 hours a day on care work, which is five times more than men do in such communities. This inequality is set to continue for generations: if current trends in the gendered distribution of care work continue, it will take 210 years for unpaid care work to be equally shared between men and women.

The heavy and unequal responsibility of care work falling to women and girls is detrimental to their lives in profound ways: it perpetuates gender and economic inequalities, undermines their health and wellbeing, limits their economic prosperity, fuels gender gaps in employment and wages and amplifies existing vulnerabilities. It also leaves women and girls time-poor, unable to meet their basic needs for rest, personal care and leisure or to participate fully in social and political activities, while enabling men’s dominance in wealth, economics and politics.

The exploitation of paid care workers

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 475 million jobs will be needed by 2030 to meet global care needs; this represents an increase of 269 million jobs from 2015 levels.

Yet governments continue to ignore the need for, and the potential of, investment in decent jobs in this sector. Instead, they leave the provision of important care services to market forces, which has suppressed wages and diminished working conditions while reducing accessibility, affordability and quality of care services. This is driving a global care crisis.

Of all care workers, domestic workers are at the highest risk of exploitation. Globally, just 10% of domestic workers have equal protection in labour law compared with other workers, and around half of them lack minimum wage protection. More than half of all domestic workers have no legal limits on their working hours under national laws and approximately 45% have no entitlement to weekly rest periods, resulting in widespread violations of the right to rest. Moreover, an estimated 90% of domestic workers have no access to social protection.

The reality of ageing and shifting populations

The world is facing a care crisis due to the impacts of an ageing population, cuts to public services and social protection systems, and the effects of climate change – threatening to make it worse and increase the burden on care workers.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that there will be an extra 100 million older people and an additional 100 million children aged 6 to 14 years needing care by 2050. Elderly people will need more acute and long-term care as they age from healthcare systems that are ill-prepared to support them.

The ILO has estimated that 2.3 billion people, mainly children and the elderly, will be in need of care by 2030. While there will be an extra 100 million older people, there will also be 100 million children aged 6–14 needing care by the same year.