(MENAFN- Jordan Times) Around the world this morning, millions of women are on their way to work. Globally, we know that most women prefer to be in paid employment, and that most men agree. The empowerment of women in the workplace is to be celebrated, but it is not without its challenges. Both women and men acknowledge that a lack of work-family balance and access to care, including childcare, care of the disabled and the elderly and housekeeping are major obstacles facing women at work.
National development plans in our region have generally overlooked the care economy as a productive economic sector. However, shifting dynamics in the Arab states demand change. Governments in our region need to focus more on care work, both as an area of employment growth as well as a means of supporting women's equal opportunities in the world of work. Here is why, throughout the course of our lives, each and every one of us will rely on the care of others. Care workers support the care of children and youth during critical stages of development and help the elderly and persons with disabilities to live with dignity.
Changing demographics within the Arab society, which are manifested in lower birth rates and longer life expectancy, point to increasing care needs. Furthermore, family living arrangements are evolving, with an increase in nuclear family structures.
A lack of affordable institutionalised state care has meant that responsibility for care predominately falls on individual households. As more Arab women move into the workforce, they continue their responsibility for caring for their families at home, undertaking what is known as 'the second shift'.
Those who can afford it employ care workers, who relieve women in the household from undertaking this 'second shift'. In our region, there is a preference for home-based care, predominately delivered by migrant workers.
The growing demand for care work will continue to create a large number of jobs in the coming years. The sector comprises a variety of skilled professions in childcare, early childhood education, disability, long-term care, elder care as well as domestic work, hence opening up many opportunities for Arab women to fill these positions. This would fall in line with targets for increasing female labour force participation rates, which currently stand at global low of 21.2 per cent.
Evidence from other regions demonstrates that a strong care economy boosts women's participation in the labour force. Member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, have set access to affordable and quality childcare, support for elder care, paid parental leave and family-friendly work opportunities and conditions as policy priorities in order to increase women's labour force participation rates. Since 2012, female employment rates have increased by almost two percentage points on average across OECD countries.
This approach has also been championed by Japan's 'womenomics' initiative, which has seen the country's female labour participation rates rise to 70.1 per cent from 62.7 per cent in 1997.
Delivering quality care goes hand in hand with ensuring decent working conditions. However, domestic workers who provide care services to households in this region experience exclusion from the labour law and vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. This is due to undervaluing care work as a contributor to economic development, and to the lack of recognition of the various skills involved, as well as care work's typical association of the work of women and its delivery by migrant workers.
To build a care sector that benefits care workers, care recipients and society overall, Arab governments should take crucial steps regarding the nature and provision of care policies and services, and the terms and conditions of care work.
This must begin with bringing care work under the full protection of the labour law, in line with international labour standards, including the principles of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, 2011(No. 189). Governments should also create a comprehensive system for training, skills development and skills recognition, ensuring that workers are able to meet emerging care needs.
Governments also need to explore flexible work arrangements to ensure that care work delivery is in line with employer demands, including the option for part-time and live-out worker models, and allowing workers mobility to shift between employers.
Facilitating social dialogue by supporting the establishment of organisations that represent the interests of both workers and employers will ensure that policies and programmes reflect evolving needs and contexts.
These and other recommendations are elaborated in a new ILO report on achieving a mutually beneficial situation for households and domestic workers through improved regulation and its effective enforcement.
Taking proactive action on these steps will ensure the establishment of a dynamic and resilient care economy, which creates jobs for national workers in the public and private spheres, helps to promote the work-life balance that all working families strive for, provides high quality care and safeguards decent working conditions for all.
Today, on International Women's Day, we thank all the women care workers who uphold our economies, communities and societies, and call on our governments to formally recognise the value of their contributions.
The writer is International Labour Organisation's regional director for Arab states. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times
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