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Why is the care economy important?

Given the significant influence of the care economy, it is crucial that Latin American governments implement care policies to combat inequality, ensure a high quality of life and reduce poverty through development.

The care economy comprises essential life activities. Care economy services are largely carried out by women who are often unpaid, are not afforded labor rights and protections, and are in precarious and vulnerable situations. However, the care economy is vitally important and can help reverse social and gender inequalities in combination with economic development. The presence of the state, through government actions and public policy, can serve as a basis for improving the conditions of care economy workers. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) have shed light on the care economy as central to the design and conduct of socioeconomic policies in the post-pandemic recovery agenda for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the vital importance of the care economy to Latin American economic development and well-being. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) defines the care economy as, “all activities that ensure the social reproduction and maintenance of human life in an adequate environment, the care economy protects the dignity of people and the integrity of their bodies, promotes education and training, supports psychological and emotional well-being, and maintains social ties” (ECLAC, 2022). Further, as articulated by the International Labor Organization (ILO), care work, both paid and unpaid, involves direct activities, including feeding babies or caring for the elders, and indirect activities, such as cleaning or cooking (ILO, 2018). Despite their vital importance, care economy workers suffer from social invisibility: the low social value ascribed to their work belies their central role in the socioeconomic development system. These activities, in general, are taken for granted, and not included meaningfully in the discussion of public policies, especially economic policies.

In 2015, around 2.1 billion people (1.9 billion children under 15 years of age and 0.2 billion elderly people) required care services. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that this number will increase to 2.3 billion people by 2030, due to the growing number of children, elderly people, and people with disabilities who require care services. As such, demand for care workers and care services is likely to dramatically increase moving forward. Therefore, government policies are vital to ensuring that both care economy workers and those in need of care are properly protected and supported.

In Brazil and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, care for babies, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities is traditionally done by the women of the family without pay and within their home. However, when the financial condition of a family permits, paid care services are almost always completed by hired domestic workers. Families with lower disposable income often turn to community and voluntary organizations for care services so that the woman, often a mother, can go to work (POSTHUMA, 2020). However, Brazil and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are not the only places where women assume a large portion of this care work; this trend is observed globally. An ILO global report found that men and women do not contribute equal efforts to unpaid care in any country. The ILO also estimates that, on average, women provide 76.2 percent of all unpaid care work (ILO, 2018). All over the world, women are overburdened with care work, based on gender and cultural issues and myriad other factors that can entrench this practice.

This trend is observed not just in Latin America, but globally. An ILO global report finds stark inequality in the efforts that men and women contribute to unpaid care in various countries. On average, women provide 76.2 percent of all unpaid care work (ILO, 2018). The burden of global care work falls on women, a phenomenon due to gender discrimination, cultural conditions, and myriad other factors.

Latin American governments are gradually acting in ways that demonstrate the importance of the care economy. For example, the Brazilian government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva created, for the first time, a Care and Family Secretariat, led by Brazilian sociologist Abramo within the Ministry of Development and Social Assistance, Family and Fight against Hunger (MDS). In a recent government publication, Abramo highlighted the current state of the Brazilian care economy, saying that “the current social organization of care is marked by the structural inequalities that characterize Brazilian society: it is women, especially Black women, who are the poorest and with lower incomes, who are primarily, if not exclusively, responsible for care work, both paid and unpaid” (MDS, 2023).

According to data from the Continuous National Household Sample Survey by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2019, women dedicated  21.7 hours per week on average to unpaid domestic and care work, while men contributed only 11 hours on average. For white women, this figure was 21 hours per week, and for Black women, 22.3 hours per week. This reality compromises the ability of women to generate income and exercise economic autonomy, which exacerbates poverty and inequality (MDS, 2023).

In Brazil, the paid care economy is not just predominantly female, it is also Black. In 2019, 45 percent of all jobs in the care sector were occupied by Black women, 31 percent by white women, and the remaining 24 percent of care economy jobs were divided between white and Black men. The largest occupational category of the care economy is domestic workers. The most recent data, in 2021, indicates that 93% of domestic workers are women and 61% of these women are Black (MDS, 2023).

Structural changes to transform the care sector in Latin America are underway. These changes are responsible for the decrease in the number of women available for care, a decrease in female participation in the labor market, and a reduction in family size. Simultaneously, the number of people requiring care has grown exponentially, driven by an aging population and an increase in labor informality, defined as economic activities that are – in law or practice – not covered or insufficiently covered by formal arrangements. These trends have led to older individuals relying more on family support. A study by ECLAC in 2022 estimates a 54 percent rate of informality in Latin America and the Caribbean, leading to high rates of precariousness and low pension coverage among informal workers. In 2019, 47.2% of employed workers were affiliated with a pension system or plan. These trends have driven greater reliance on family support among the elderly. Historically, the involvement of the state in the care economy in Latin America has been limited. However, existing policies can serve as models for other countries. Given the ongoing structural transformations pressuring the existing care deficit, enacting policy to help meet the demand for care and ensure the quality of care in Latin America and Brazil presents a challenge for policymakers. The public sector must take a stronger and more proactive role to develop and implement care economy public policy within a framework of more integrated and transformative care (ILO, 2018; ECLAC,2016). Because the care economy is so far-reaching, Latin American governments must enact care policies to overcome inequality, guarantee a high quality of life, and alleviate poverty through development.


Ph.D. en Política Científica y Tecnológica por la Universidad Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) y es Profesor Asociado de la Universidad Federal Rural de Río de Janeiro (UFRRJ), en el Programa de Posgrado en Gestión y Estrategia (PPGE-UFRRJ).



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