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Why global solidarity and action matter for decent work in the care economy

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Care matters to us all. We all want good quality cradle to grave care for ourselves and our loved ones. This is only possible if the workers delivering care services have good pay and conditions.

The global care workforce is huge, totalling at least 381 million workers, two-thirds of whom are women. Worldwide this is 11.5 per cent of total employment and 19.3 per cent of female employment. 

In the UK, adult social care jobs alone contribute at least £55.7 billion to the economy and constitute around 6 per cent of total UK employment. 

Yet care work is persistently insecure and exploitative. Low and insecure pay, bad employment conditions, violence and harassment, and a limited training and career development are part and parcel of everyday life for care workers.  

Recent TUC analysis shows that care workers across the UK are earning below the real living wage and are significantly underpaid relative to pay across the rest of the economy. The median salary of social care workers and childcare practitioners is less than two-thirds of that of all employees nationally.  

On 29th October, trade unions, governments, the UN and other social partners will mark the International Day for Care. This day, initiated by trade unions and recognised in July through a UN General Assembly Resolution, gives visibility to the care economy – and care workers – worldwide and provides an opportunity to build momentum for increased public investment and decent work in the care sector.  

Here are three ways that global solidarity and action matter for decent work in the care economy. 

  1. The care workforce is global 

In recent years ‘global care chains’ have emerged as rising demand for care services has seen migrant workers, largely female, fill care jobs – including childcare, social care and domestic workers as well as nurses, doctors and educators – in turn leaving their own children and relatives in the care of paid workers and family in their home country.  

The UK is a key link in the chain, with labour migration increasingly recognised as critical to deliver care services. In 2022 the UK Government expanded the care worker visa scheme to help tackle the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis in social care. This meant that in 2022/23 70,000 international care workers were recruited, up 50,000 from the previous year.  

But the TUC has identified that as international recruitment has increased, so has the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers. This includes wage theft, high recruitment fees with non-permitted repayment clauses and debt bondage as well as abuse of the immigration system by employers to blackmail workers and prevent them seeking other employment. 

Therefore the fight for decent care jobs must include the experiences, priorities and needs of international care workers.  

  1. The global union movement provides solidarity and support 

Global union solidarity and joint action is critical to build care worker movements and support workers.  

Sharing insights into working conditions helps unions provide vital workforce support. Trade unions in destination countries have provided information on immigration, employment rights and common labour abuses with migrant care workers via unions in countries of origin. This toolkit produced by unions in Italy is a great example.  

Global links also help unions make the most of political opportunities. Following the UK Labour party’s commitment to a Fair Pay Agreement in social care, the TUC has been learning from sister unions about their experiences with a similar system for sectoral collective bargaining in New Zealand.  

And global bodies like the International Trades Union Confederation and Public Services International help build care worker power. From inspiring and informing unions by documenting workers’ wins in the care economy to convening affiliates to influence global policy, international federations play a key role in the achievement of decent care work.  

  1. Global labour law and policy raise the bar on domestic standards for decent care work  

Global and regional labour standards and policy have tackled historic discrimination and exploitation against care workers by setting transnational employment rights floors – and binding governments to act.  

Recent examples include the groundbreaking 2011 Domestic Workers Convention (C. 189) at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency that sets global labour standards, secured following a long campaign led by the International Domestic Workers’ Federation. Many unions have now turned their attention to getting their government to ratify C.189, including in the UK. From Belgium to Mexico, where it is in force, C.189 has helped extend rights such as paid leave, minimum wages and employment contracts to domestic workers.  

In 2015 governments worldwide agreed the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality (Goal 5) and decent work (Goal 8). This has increased resources and political will, putting care on the policy agenda for the first time ever in many countries. 

Important regional initiatives have also emerged. Earlier this year European social partners agreed a social dialogue committee for social services, including adult social care and childcare, covering around 9 million workers across the EU. 

Next year will bring important opportunities to reinforce the global framework for care workers’ rights.  

In May 2024 governments, trade unions and employers will discuss decent work in the care economy at the International Labour Conference, where unions will seek commitment to a new ILO standard for care jobs. 

And we hope to see the UN General Assembly build on this year’s Resolution with a more substantive agreement committing governments to building and financing comprehensive care systems - with decent work and collective bargaining at their heart.  

Follow the International Day for Care: #InvestInCare #Care2023 

Read more about TUC’s priorities for the care workforce at these links:  

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