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Labour markets, household work and the care crisis

Inés Bustillo


Photo: Bernal/ECLAC, 2008.
Workers of the Fundación para la Productividad en el Campo, A.C., a female-led foundation working with local producers of the cactus (nopal) plant to sell the finished product in the U.S.; Ayoquezco de Aldama, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Despite growing participation by Latin American women in the labour market and changes in family dynamics, men’s share in domestic and care tasks remains minimal. This situation, compounded by ageing populations and the paucity of social services, is intensifying a care crisis that needs to be addressed promptly with measures that include reform of social protection systems and of labour practices. 

Over the past 25 years the proportion of women seeking or engaged in paid work has risen steadily in the region. From 1990 to 2007, labour market participation rates among women in the economically active age range (typically 25 to 54 years) rose by nearly 20 per cent as a result of a range of factors, including declining fertility, delayed childbearing and rising educational credentials. Increasing divorce rates and growing prevalence of single-parent households headed by women are also prompting more women to enter the labour market and, increasingly, turning them into the sole income-earners in their households. In Latin America, 29 per cent of households are headed by women.

Irrespective of country differences, higher rates of labour market participation by women have raised total household incomes significantly. Although women currently earn only 60 to 90 per cent of what men earn on average —a situation that is indicative of gender-based discrimination in the labour market— their earnings contribute substantially to the reduction of poverty in many households.

Women are more likely to have poor working conditions, limited health benefits, lower rates of social security affiliation and lower wages. Also, they tend to hold jobs in the informal sector both because of difficulties finding formal-sector jobs and because such jobs offer greater flexibility for undertaking family responsibilities. While the absence of set hours and other characteristics of informal-sector job worksites allow women to perform paid work and fulfill family responsibilities such as care-giving and domestic work, informal work often leads women to a dead end, characterized by poor-quality jobs without social protection. 

Unpaid work and care-giving in the household show significant differences by gender. While in general women worldwide devote more time to care-giving than men, the gap is noticeably wider in developing countries. In Latin America, women’s time devoted to care-giving is nearly four times higher than Sweden and double the figure for Spain and Italy. In Mexico, for example, in 2002 females devoted an average of 13 hours per week to childcare and support for other household members, while males devoted seven hours. As reported in the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) report Women’s Contribution to Equality in Latin America and the Caribbean, the gap was equally large with regard to care for individuals with physical limitations: 10 hours per week for females versus five hours for males.

Time-use surveys for five Latin American countries —although not strictly comparable— show that the gap in household work between males and females is greater at younger ages. It remains relatively unchanged up to age 49 in some countries and then narrows at more advanced ages. Further, the number of hours that females devote to unpaid work and care-giving is greater in the poorer quintiles, whereas there is relatively little difference among males, regardless of income. The gender gap is less pronounced among females in higher socioeconomic brackets, although females in all socioeconomic quintiles spend more time than males on unpaid work.


Unless action is taken, the additional pressure of population ageing and rising demand of people requiring care at home will lead to an even worse care crisis and, as evidence shows, with even greater responsibilities falling on women. 

The demographic transition under way in Latin America and the Caribbean reveals that the region’s population is gradually but inexorably ageing. This is a generalized process, in which all the countries are advancing toward the “graying” of their societies. As shown in Figure 1, the most significant transformation occurs at both age extremes: the portion of the population under 15 will diminish and the population over 60 will gradually increase, crossing in 2035, when both groups will near 20 per cent of the population. For its part the relative proportion of the 15 to 59 age group will remain stable at levels near 60 percent, even as this group grows older internally. As we can see, the transformation will not happen at the same time for all countries. We can expect this shift to occur in Cuba in 2010 and in Chile in 2024. Countries less advanced in this generational shift, such as Ecuador and El Salvador, will experience this cross-over of age groups after 2035. 

Notwithstanding this heterogeneity in the majority of countries, there is a window of opportunity to undertake institutional, programmatic and practical transformations, which would not only bring about age-specific structural changes, but also modifications in sectoral demands.

The worsening care situation calls for a reform of social protection systems and of labour practices and a transformation of cultural norms that sanction an unequal distribution of paid and unpaid work between women and men. This in turn calls for efforts to institute universal care systems and implement government regulations and incentives that will recognize and encourage the reorganization and sharing of paid and unpaid work between women and men. A key challenge is to redistribute unpaid work through policies that facilitate men’s participation in care-giving —parental leave, universal childcare or flexible schedules. 

Public agendas in Latin America are only just beginning to explicitly consider care-related issues, though with wide differences across countries. Issues to be addressed include how to ensure universal and equal access to care, how to improve the quality of care and how to guarantee long-term sustainability. In other words, countries will have to consider building a social protection framework to properly meet the continuously expanding care needs of the future; this task will only grow more difficult with time.  

In ECLAC’s view it is key to include care issues in the social protection debate. Social protection schemes must provide greater equality of access for people in need of care, regardless of their resources, include universal and needs-based services, and take into account intergenerational solidarity. Finally, gender considerations need to be reflected in policies and programs. This means involving both men and women in support tasks and finding ways to enable them to reconcile family life with paid work. 

Inés Bustillo is Director of the Washington Office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is based on ECLAC’s Social Panorama of Latin America, 2009.

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