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A Future Structured Around Care

By J

Hands of different shades radiate from the title in the middle, performing various actions such as administering a vaccine, releasing a bird, raising a plunger, spraying a spray bottle, holding another hand, using a trowel, and tossing slips of paper into a bin. The slips read: “5 day week”, “extraction” and “exploitation”

Importance of Care Work: A Broken Record

The pandemic has illuminated how care workers are critical to society, and has made society realise that the most important workers are not paid in proportion to the immense roles they play. Nurses, doctors, teachers, nannies and childcare professionals are all care workers. Yet these jobs are only a portion of what constitutes care work and the care economy. Much of these jobs are unpaid, unrecognised and essentially not seen as real work [1]. For example, taking care of children and elderly parents and performing chores are often seen as natural activities. Indeed, care work is essential to the functioning of society, and as a bonus in the environmental crisis we find ourselves in, care work is also low carbon and non-extractive [2]. Additionally, as climate change facilitates the occurrences of future pandemics [3], which could be very possibly more devastating than COVID-19, we desperately need more care workers to deal with the aftermath.

Social Reproduction and the Invisible Maintenance Economy

Along with environmental stewardship, care work constitutes what feminist scholars term social reproduction, which involves work and sacrifices necessary for production, but are not viewed as “productive” in economic terms. As mentioned, social reproduction is often invisible, unwaged, or underpaid, and is historically performed by women or other historically exploited groups [4], elucidating intersectional fault lines along gender, race and class. It is important to note that production does not only involve the production of material goods, but also the production of human beings [5]. This makes social reproduction instrumental because it involves producing, caring, feeding, clothing and inculcating social norms into children who eventually become workers, and it also involves caring for workers who get ill or injured so that they return to productive labour [6]. Social reproduction is therefore critical to the churning of the capitalist machinery and production [7], because it essentially sustains the life cycle, and encompasses processes of sustenance and restoration [8].

A building with four rooms. From left to right, they contain a pregnant mother standing, then cradling a baby, teaching a child, and feeding them food at a table. On the right, outside the building, the child is now an adult and walks out holding a suitcase.

In fact, the quantity of unpaid work done in this sphere has exceeded the quantity of paid work performed in the market space [9], yet most of it does not factor into GDP or other metrics of the economy [10]. In this vein, scholars thus view the global economy as being structured into what they call the monetized economy as studied by mainstream economics, and the non-monetized maintenance economy of social reproduction [11], with the latter materially maintaining the former and constituting its foundation despite residing in its shadows [12].

Yet, if the maintenance economy of social reproduction is so critical, why can’t we simply price care work appropriately, to use the language of economists, and hence pay our formal care workers better and address the gender wage gap (most care workers are women). Why can’t we further formalise the care sector and bring care work out of its cloak of invisibility? Ultimately, why can’t we just monetise the maintenance economy and further integrate it into the capitalist global economy?

Firstly, as opposed to merely clapping and calling them heroes, we should definitely pay care workers more. Yet, we must also remember that marketised care work is subject to profitability and efficiency as the mantra of a capitalist political economy, which means that paid care work still tends to be underpaid and also performed by women and other marginalised groups. The paucity of independent unions in Singapore, including the care sector, also undermines the ability of care workers to collectively organise and negotiate for better wages and working conditions from private employers and the state [13]. The fear of having their work pass revoked also compels foreign care workers to toe the line and behave. This illustrates that the commodification of care work does not address its marginalisation due to its subjugation to capitalist logics [14] and asymmetrical power relations between workers and the state and employers.

Screenshots of articles by The New Paper with headline “Care workers here greatly underpaid” with a photo of healthcare union president smiling, and by the BBC with headline “Singapore jails bus drivers for inciting strikes” and photo of the drivers next to a police van.

In Singapore, what comes to mind when we think of the marginalisation of the care economy is the limited bed spaces and understaffed hospitals even before the pandemic [15], the overworked [16], stressed-out [17] and underpaid [18] care workers in both private and public institutions run by the neoliberal state, prioritising efficiency and minimising costs. Yet this is not unique to Singapore, as healthcare systems globally are under stress with many healthcare workers resigning en masse. In a marketised care economy, care work is not valued intrinsically for its use value to human wellbeing, but is priced according to its efficiency and ability to bring profits, which is why care workers are still underpaid and overworked as mentioned.

The Care Sector Like All Others Under Capitalism, Is Inherently Colonial

Secondly, Singapore has already formalised the care economy in many ways — the most obvious example being our foreign domestic workers. These women, often from low income countries in the region, are hired at a few hundred dollars per month in a classic race to the bottom, and are tasked to take care of the household, the young and old, pets and much more. This illuminates another problem with marketized care work: it depends on and perpetuates neocolonial power asymmetries between the core and periphery [19]. This happens as high income countries (the core) extract labour from the low income world (the periphery), just as how western imperialism plundered and extracted resources from the non-western world under colonialism before and under global institutions masquerading as facades of neocolonialism today. Scholars term this the “care drain” or “global nanny chains'' [20], where a pipeline of care workers from the Global South supplies families in the Global North with cheap labour for care work, forming the underclass of societies in the Global North. The treatment of foreign domestic workers, who experience low pay, notable cases of abuse, being discouraged or sometimes even barred from leaving the house, and having their passports and sometimes mobile phones withheld, certainly fits the description of an underclass in Singapore society.

Drawing of the outlines of the Philippines and Singapore, with icons of people moving from the former to the latter with dollar signs.

This pipeline has only exacerbated with globalisation and the increase of dual-career couples in the Global North in the past few decades [21]. The formalisation of the care economy in Singapore has hence led to Singaporean families meeting their care needs at the expense of its lower income neighbours losing its care workers, with their children losing their mothers for many years, and mothers missing out on their children growing up in order to gain low-waged employment in the Lion City. These foreign domestic workers are also often at the mercy of unscrupulous agents, and run the risk of domestic problems back home due to their prolonged absence. Indeed, Singapore is not the only high income country benefiting from such “care drains”, with Latin American care migrants in Spain, Polish live-in nurses in Germany and many others. The formalisation of the care economy thus meets the needs of the Global North by cheapening and exploiting the labour of the Global South, in a neocolonial arrangement resembling the imperial plunder of resources and land for capitalist growth. It is thus inadequate to merely raise wages for local nurses while we continue to suction care workers from our lower income neighbours [22].

Capitalist growth necessitates the exploitation of an underclass of cheap, low-waged and precarious workers [23] — formalising the care economy and integrating it into global circuits of capital only serves to perpetuate this arrangement and preserve colonial vestiges. The systemic ills of such an arrangement in the care economy are thus laid bare for all to see: a healthcare system under severe duress, underpaid and overworked workers, and the pipeline of cheap labour from our lower income neighbours producing domestic consequences shielded from our uncaring eyes. If the social relations and political economy produced by capitalism are what led us to such a predicament, then paths to a sustainable and just future in the care economy and beyond cannot lie in the expansion of the system to include care work [24], nor can it hinge on giving an equal slice of such a toxic pie to the oppressed [25].

A pie chart with the words “overwork”, “exploitation”, “low pay”, “abuse”, “precarity” on it, and a slice is cut out, facing a person who is rejecting it by pushing their palm out towards it.

Brave New Imaginaries for Justice and Sustainability

To ensure that the future of care work is sustainable and just, a post-capitalist and decolonised world is needed, where the Global South has full autonomy over their own resources and labour, and where care work is fairly distributed. Such a world requires a recognition that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely on a planet with finite resources and ecological sinks, because GDP growth remains highly coupled to emissions and resource use even with current and projected technological advancements [26]. This therefore compels us to adopt a model of Degrowth — breaking with endless economic growth [27], therefore transitioning to a post-capitalist society because growth is the iron law [28] and structural imperative [29] of capital.

Such a world would restructure the economy around use-values (things that are really necessary for the flourishing of human lives) and human needs instead of the stock exchange which is increasingly detached from economic reality [30]. Such a world would re-center society around the reproductive economy of care [31], equally distributing care work [32]. Care work would then be seen as the primary economy because it directly satisfies human needs [33], and would be the engine towards a just and sustainable future [34]. Labour and resources would also not be geared towards endless economic growth but towards human well-being, of which care is indispensable. Indeed, we should also note that it is not only ecological resources that are finite, but a complete analysis of the crisis of Capitalism requires us to recognize the limits of the caring labour of women, and that the political economy must abide by both ecological and social limits [35]. Ultimately, the real economy constitutes our material relationship with each other and the rest of the nonhuman world, and we must shift that relationship from one based on extraction and exploitation, to one based on reciprocity and care [36].

Such a world seems unimaginable and utopian, so what would it look like? For starters, due to the pandemic and an ageing population, the Singapore government has already recognised the importance of care work, and designated the care economy, along with the green and digital economy, as the 3 pillars of Singapore’s economic pillar of growth [37]. While it is definitely a move in the right direction, we argue that it is insufficient. The creation of a world centered on care would require bolder policies such as the shortening of the working week and work-sharing to free up time for people to care [38]. It could require a universal basic income to decouple people’s livelihoods from waged unemployment such that they have more time to to partake in care work [39]. It would also necessitate a maximum income to prevent the hoarding of wealth and excess consumption and accumulation [40], which is responsible for the vast majority of the ecological breakdown we see today [41].

The few sentences above obviously do not translate into a working policy or white paper to be presented to Parliament as a bill, we obviously do not have all the details or policy proposals figured out, and the transition to a post-capitalist economy centered on care will not be instantaneous. But we do not apologise for committing the Singaporean cardinal sin of “criticising but not giving alternatives”, because even the current political economic architecture we are embedded in today was not built in a day, and took many rounds of revision and implementation (dominantly amongst bourgeoisie elites and the ruling-managerial class prioritising profit over justice, sustainability and well-being). So why shouldn’t the transition to a society more amenable to justice and sustainability be afforded the same time, effort, and manpower? Why shouldn’t the transition to a society centering the voices of previously silenced and marginalised groups be allowed the same resources and political support? In the midst of this transition and the crafting of this ‘alternative solution’ to the current quagmire we are in, we can and should critique and continue to tear down the paradigm that has moved us into the socio-political and environmental crises today, and start laying the foundations for this new society.

The critique of the status quo is only the first step, and what is necessary after this is the pooling of intellect and talent to build a whole new world and think of ways to get there, and not to waste it on plastering the cracks of a structurally flawed system and justifying its continued existence. May we be brave and not limit our imaginations to variants of this system and how to preserve it at all costs, but to dream radically of a better world, for it is what the children of tomorrow deserve.

On the left is a person in a suit standing on a large pile of cash, while under him are two people lifting the pile and cutting down trees. An arrow points to the right where a person is picking fruit from a tree, another is raking leaves next to a deer, and a person assists another in a wheelchiar who is feeding a bird.


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