“Caring work involves providing a face-to-face service,” Paula England and Nancy Folbre (1999) tell us. During the medical and social emergency caused by COVID-19, face-to-face contact seems impossible, while at the same time, giving and receiving care has proven to be the most essential service for survival in these circumstances.
Care work and services – which typically include housework, child and elder care, but also teaching, physical and psychological therapy, nursing, and doctoring – have been trapped in a value paradox. On the one hand, care workers are praised as essential, while on the other hand they are denied a remuneration that reflects the value of their work. This paradox is a core tenet of feminist economics. It exposes how a cultural and symbolic order directly impacts the material and economic situation both of women and of society in general.
At different levels, all tasks that are part of care work are deemed “labors of love”. This means that those who perform them suffer a “pecuniary penalty” (England 1999): they are paid less because it is related with the work done in private homes. A work that has been subject to a previous symbolic devaluation.
The Covid-19 outbreak intensifies the need for care work at home. At the same time, it exposes the essential nature of this work and thus renders visible the long-neglected rifts in our societies and systems.
In times of Covid-19, the productive sphere has aggressively taken over private spaces. Much of the work has been transferred to homes, making it difficult to separate schedules and spheres of life. It also conceals the fact that households bear the cost of the crisis.
In a regime that obliges us to stay at home but at the same time continue to produce, women’s work has been intensified. The ones who keep our societies going during this crisis are care workers in the health care sector and in all other areas: education, food preparation, home care, care for children and adolescents, care for persons with disabilities. At the same time, other tasks do not simply go away.
This shows that the domestic space, or one’s own home, is not necessarily a leisure space – at least not for everyone.
According to emergency labor law, the only domestic work that is considered an essential service in Ecuador is elderly care. However, many women continue to work as domestic workers in other households, especially for upper-class families. Even if some of them work fewer days a week, others are still required to work daily. Some domestic workers still work under the so-called "puertas adentro" model , currently working seven days a week.
Domestic workers and other caregivers should have the right to protect their health and that of their own families by remaining confined in their own homes. By guilt-tripping women into performing “labors of love”, society not only takes advantage of the free work of mothers, but also of the constant, underpaid labor of domestic workers and caregivers.
By exalting values such as affection and filial loyalty, society exploits feelings in order to ensure that low cost care work is provided in relationships that are characterized by inequality. Additionally, in Latin-America, there is a continuity of servile and colonial relationships. In Ecuador, 65% of families with domestic service belong to the highest income quintile, while 60% of domestic workers come from poor and very poor households.
According to the ILO, 77.5% of paid domestic work is done under informal conditions. This has to do with the extreme feminization of these tasks, but it is also a class issue. Both factors add up a penalty on these activities, not only in terms of income but also with regard to working conditions as well as access to labor rights. Although it is forbidden under criminal law, 58.9% of domestic workers in Ecuador do not have access to the social security system. Paid domestic work does not lighten women’s burdens; it transfers them to poor and racialized women, in what María José Machado calls a relationship of “benevolent exploitation” (2020).
It is clear that this emergency has severely affected women from all social strata – albeit to different extents.
Writing this text took me several days, as I myself have been trying to balance intellectual work with housework and taking time for my children. Although they are adolescents and do not require the same care as younger children, they need shared time and space to mitigate the consequences of confinement just like I do. We all need physical human interaction in order to feel safe and alive.
At a moment when contact and closeness are forbidden to us, we realize how important it is to care for each other. Even though social distancing and masks are required, and all non-essential work has been prohibited, face-to-face caretaking goes on because we need to look after one another.
“Puertas adentro” means indoors and it is used for those cases in which caregivers live in the same place they work.
Gabriela Montalvo works and studies the topics of Feminist Economics, Art and Economics, and Cultural Economics. Her work is centered on economic analysis with a focus on gender, reproductive and caretaking work, work in art, the study of gaps, statistical analysis, and design and calculations of indicators. Her field of academic interest is the intersection between economics, culture, and feminism.
England, Paula, and Nancy Folbre. “The Cost of Caring.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 561, no. 1 (January 1999): 39–51. doi:10.1177/000271629956100103.
Machado, María José. “‘Afectos’ que ocultan violencias: el empleo doméstico no se puede teletrabajar”. Manifiestos feministas abril 03, 2020. manifiestosfeministas.blogspot.com/2020/04/afectos-que-ocultan-violencias-el.html