The daily, unpaid work that greases the wheels of the global economy

Professor Bev Skeggs Gender, Inequality

Let’s do a thought experiment: What would happen if as soon as women gave birth they handed over their babies to the fathers to take total responsibility, at all times, of all needs? No women would be available for hire to take on all the domestic and care duties, so fathers couldn’t buy themselves out of the situation. What if we take women out of the equation entirely for a moment… How would the fathers cope? Always responsible, 24/7. How would they work if there was nobody else to look after their children? And from where would the plentiful supply of labour required to make economic wealth come from? Unless fathers became highly creative communal carers, the economy would grind to a halt. It is impossible to service – feed, water, provide shelter for rest – and reproduce – biologically – the labour supply unless someone is taking responsibility for its’ renewal.

We have known for centuries who does most of this reproduction, servicing and replenishing: women. And as well as doing the work, taking responsibility for it 24/7 is also critical. Who makes sure the basic resources are ready for use to service basic needs? Replenishing humanity has always been very one sided and it’s getting worse. So much for the idea of progress.

The Time to Care report, published yesterday by Oxfam, reveals that unless we reverse the 3 R’s – reproduction, replenishing, responsibility, we could grind to a halt as the super-rich hoover up, not just money and assets, but the benefits of all this fundamental, though often invisible infrastructural work.

Where do our values lie when the combined wealth of the world’s 22 richest men is more than the wealth of ALL the women in Africa? And we know what these 22 men have been doing to generate such wealth has very little to do with the 3 R’s involving the physical daily care of others. Yet we do know as incontrovertible empirical fact that the majority of these African women have been sustaining the resources from which wealth is extracted.  Is untrammelled extraction from the most vulnerable the way we want to live our lives, build our values? Is this the sort of world we want to live in, the world in which we ought not just survive but should also thrive? 

The 22 will have been relying on others, not just as particles in the chain of wealth but also for their own replenishment – although how a golf cart or a yacht replenishes is beyond my imagination. The debates about inequality have often missed this crucial component of economic distribution: the invisible infrastructure that lubricates the global economy. We have witnessed decades of global redistribution, away from the impoverished but caring, to the repulsively rich. This is redistribution upwards from the many to the few. And the crucial component that enables upward redistribution is all the unpaid or badly paid labour of social reproduction. The 3 R’s of social reproduction, according to Oxfam’s report, have an estimated $10.8 trillion monetary value. It is precisely because it is hard to monetise all the love, care and intimacy that greases the wheels of wealth production, to separate the freely offered gift of care from the exploited extraction of social reproduction, that make it so difficult to both recognise and challenge.

But we must. And we can only do it if we begin by reversing our traditional economic assumptions about wealth generation: What type of wealth? For whom? Why? This report challenges us to think differently. What if we plan our economy based on the fundamental social premise of caring for others. Nobody needs billions, but we all need care. We all need to care. We have all been cared for. How did we get into a state where it is the care-free and the care-less who are the most highly economically and socially valued?

This needs big thinking which begins with care and consideration, understanding relationality and not just individuality, not just the search for the next source of profit, or minor adjustments to a cruel and uncaring system. Feminists used to say women held up half the world, well now it’s the majority of women holding up a very small group of men on very high precipices.

To hear more about this topic, LSE is holding an event on January 28, 2019 in London. Please see here for more details on how to attend.


Professor Bev Skeggs