At a Glance: Unpaid Care and Domestic Work in the ASEAN


At a Glance: Unpaid Care and Domestic Work in the ASEAN Region

When we think of work, what perhaps normally comes to mind is one that pays a salary — work-from-home or otherwise — that starts and ends by clocking in and out of a system.

In the business of domesticity, doing the dishes and the laundry, cooking the household's meals, shopping for groceries, and taking care of family members, among others, are usually performed by invisible hands.

This is unpaid care and domestic work. Usually unrecognised, this kind of work involves caring for old people, children, and those with sicknesses.

According to a quick guide by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) via the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), unpaid care work likewise includes domestic labour like cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, and supporting other families with their chores.

While it is a given that homes, the state, and different sectors must all be involved in sharing in the pervasiveness of unpaid care work, Sida noted the inequality that unpaid care work usually falls on the hands of women and girls still remains.

"Women therefore have less time to engage in paid work, to network, to participate in activities for societal change, or even to rest," Sida said. "This 'women’s time poverty' undermines well-being, generates insecurities, fosters financial dependence and limits options for decent work, even to the point of restricting women to low-status, part-time jobs in the informal sector."

Unpaid Care Work in the ASEAN Region

In "Addressing Unpaid Care Work in ASEAN," a 2021 report by the United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) co-published with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it was noted that although headway has been achieved in the fields of social, political, and economic advancement, "women's economic empowerment continues to be a challenge."

While unpaid care work has existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that the health crisis rekindled discourses about the conditions of the unpaid care economy. In ESCAP's report, it sought to spotlight the economy's very state in the ASEAN region, but not without encountering challenges.

Among the ASEAN Member States, ESCAP identified that only Cambodia and Thailand possess national data on the time use of women and men in direct and indirect care tasks. This lack in data from other countries, thus, makes it challenging "to pinpoint the care deficits and the areas to target with care policies."

The Report's Main Points

Lack of Care Infrastructure in Rural Populations

Economic progress in the ASEAN region has given way to safe water, sanitation, transportation, and food, but ESCAP’s report showed that rural areas have not received care infrastructure as much as urban populations.

Concordance in Social Assistance Programmes

Social insurance and assistance programmes currently exist in several ASEAN Member States and many of the recipients of cash transfers and welfare initiatives comprise of women. Nevertheless, the report highlighted that there exists a disparity between "the commitment to social protection policies at an overall level and the actual reach of programmes that recognize the care-differentiated needs of women."

A Shift to Old-Age Care

Care services are also mainly focused on women's child-rearing and maternal roles. Yet as the demographics of the region are moving towards ageing, ESCAP said that ASEAN Member States must plan to tackle issues concerning old-age care and long-term care as these will likely escalate women's care work in the future.

‘Levers of Change’

Policy actions will vary for each ASEAN Member State due to their different gendered political economies, demographics, and sociopolitical trends, therefore ESCAP emphasised the importance of policy actions that would deliver adequate care to the needs of caregivers and care providers in their given contexts.

ESCAP identified the following as "levers of change" to ensure the proper execution of policies in addressing unpaid care work:

  • Financing of care policies
  • Access to reliable and comparable care and gender-disaggregated data
  • Representation of women and caregivers in policy processes
  • An enabling legal and regulatory policy environment
  • And most importantly, norm changes in patriarchal attitudes

Read ESCAP's full "Addressing Unpaid Care Work in ASEAN" report.

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