Fewer roses, more pay, please

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According to industry experts, salaries for nannies and childcare providers are at least RM1,500, and between RM2,500 and RM5,000 for carers of elderly people. All have also said that women comprise the majority of their staff. — Bernama photo

WHEN it comes to unpaid labour in Malaysia, women are tops.

They are great at being underpaid as well.

I say this because women had a labour participation rate of 56.5 per cent compared to 83.1 per cent for men at the last count, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM)’s January 2024 Labour Force Report.

As for the women outside the labour force, namely those who could not or were not actively or interested in seeking work, housework or family responsibilities was the most common reason, accounting for 42.5 per cent.

And when women were part of the workforce, they were underpaid by 33 per cent compared to men, according to the DoSM report.

For all their trouble, women employees at offices, schools or clubs get a rose to commemorate International Women’s Day, with its theme this year being ‘Investing in Women: Accelerating Progress’.

The roses are a lovely thought. But rather than a largely cosmetic display, wouldn’t providing equal pay and acknowledging the unpaid labour of women with policies and actions be a better way to commemorate the day?

Giving roses to women employees in commemorating this year’s International Women’s Day is indeed a lovely thought, but it also seems to be more of a cosmetic display than a solid acknowledgement. — Bernama photo

Unpaid labour

A crucial step is to realise the value of care work. There is paid work and there is unpaid work, but one is valued more than the other. In other words, just because one does not receive money for the work they do, it does not mean their work lacks monetary value.

Most of the work of caregiving in Malaysia is unpaid, falling mostly upon women who are expected to care, not only for children but also for their parents, and elderly and disabled relatives.

A lot of this important work, as noted by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) researchers Christopher Choong Weng Wai, Adam Manaf Mohamed Firouz, Alyssa Farha Jasmin, Nazihah Muhamad Noor and Rachel Gong in their ‘Time to Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey Report’, published in 2019, had been undervalued despite women ‘being the backbone’ of the economy.

“Because household activities do not require a market transaction, they are ignored in traditional estimates of an economy,” they stated in their report.

Most of the work of caregiving in Malaysia is unpaid, falling mostly upon women who are expected to care, not only for children but also for their parents, and elderly and disabled relatives. — Bernama photo

According to a 2017 National Population and Family Development Board population survey, ‘Traditional Gender Roles in Caregiving and Breadwinning’ involving 3,044 subjects, 95 per cent of women reported being ‘absolutely involved’ in caregiving; and between 57 per cent and 69 per cent of men reported being absolutely involved, more in elderly care than childcare.

On average, KRI’s time-use survey found women and mothers spent about 78.1 minutes of their time daily on caregiving. Men and fathers, on average, spent 68.7 minutes daily, more than half on transportation.

Ask anyone, and everyone who is not living as a hermit will have a story to tell of someone who has given up their career or limited their prospects to take care of a loved one.

More often than not, it is a woman. In my own circle, there are women who fall under the different subsets of caregiving.

One had to stop working to care for her two special-needs children. Childcare, as it exists in Malaysia now, cannot help her much; space is limited for children with severe disabilities, and the cost is prohibitive.

Another gave up her career to take care of her mother, who was suffering from liver cancer.

Because they are unable to work, both women are dependent on their husband’s largesse.

And even if women never left their jobs, due to their care burden they are unable to focus on growing their careers and doing the extra work that can help.

For example, a childhood friend of mine has to take care of her ailing mother-in-law, on top of her children, leaving her little time to grow her career after hours.

Her husband has no such constraints.

I too fall under the category of providing care. Although my father is still well and active, much of the care work for my 85-year-old mother falls upon me. When she was first hospitalised in 2018, I took two weeks off to nurse her back to health.

Although she is still active and mostly well, she is elderly and has been hospitalised two more times since then. I know the hospitalisations would occur more frequently as her body breaks down.

Despite childcare incentives and tax rebates for caregiving among other efforts, more can be done. Many of the tax incentives are not enough to support care work and supplies.

For example, beginning in 2022, the government has been providing a RM6,000 tax rebate for basic support care for a disabled child or spouse or parent. This and other reliefs are seldom enough to meet the costs of care work.

One of the biggest help comes from changing the mindset surrounding care work in the hope that it would catalyse improvements.

Giving value

According to a survey conducted by Ipsos, a global market research company, for International Women’s Day, Malaysians think women are treated better than men by the government and at the workplace among others, about 10 per cent higher than the global average.

This perception is likely due to increasing chatter about policies and incentives to encourage female participation in the labour force and public life.

It all harks back to how care work is also largely invisible even though it is heavy work.

Should the unpaid labour provided at home for children and elderly care be remunerated, there would be no denying their value.

According to industry experts, salaries for nannies and childcare providers are at least RM1,500, and between RM2,500 and RM5,000 for carers of elderly people. All have said that women comprise the majority of their staff.

Denis Lim, managing director of Senior Garden Home in Melaka, tells Bernama that women are generally considered more compassionate and suited for caregiving.

“This is not stereotyping but in general, females are just better.

“I guess this is how we’ve been built, being made by the higher spirit. I guess we’re tuned that way… that females in general are just more compassionate,” he says.

SRA Old Folks Home president Sharil Hussein says the industry prefers women as staff because there is also less risk of sexual violations with women caregivers. At the Kuala Selangor-based centre, male staff are only allowed to attend to male patients.

“When a male attendant needs to provide treatment to a female patient, we require another staff member to chaperone,” he adds.

Despite the moniker, this home caters to not only the elderly folks, but also the disabled.

Depending on the individual centres, the cost of elderly care can run from free to over RM7,000 a month. As for childcare, Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia president Anisa Ahmad says the fees can run from RM250 to RM3,000 a month.

Anisa says for childcare, fees can run from RM250 to RM3,000 a month. — Bernama photo

Gender equality

As Malaysia heads towards an aged nation status with 15 per cent of the population aged 60 and above by 2035, this lack of value placed on care work will blow up in our faces.

Acknowledging women’s largely unpaid contribution to care work will help prepare the country to face the challenges in the future. By giving value to care work and removing the perception that only paid work is valuable, it will likely reduce rigid gender roles and encourage sharing of care work between the genders at home.

On top of it, having women participate in the economy will provide numerous benefits to the nation.

As of 2019, a research by the World Bank has found that Malaysia stands to grow its income per capita by 26.2 per cent, or an average income gain of about RM10,590 (US$2,250), if women could participate in the economy fully.

A research by the World Bank reports that Malaysia stands to grow its income per capita by 26.2 per cent, or an average income gain of about RM10,590, if women could participate in the economy fully. — Bernama photo

Without women going out to work, the country may face a labour shortage, which can stall growth.

If both husband and wife had to work long hours, who would take care of their baby or elderly parents? In both scenarios, the country loses.

Women’s rights activist Suriani Kempe tells Bernama that promoting equality on top of affordable and accessible care services is key.

“My contention with those (earlier) programmes is always that these programmes do not address the fundamental inequality in gender care work. It is like giving women extra tools (to work from everywhere, all the time),” she says.

“But what these programmes don’t do is fundamentally change or tell husbands: ‘Hey guys, why don’t you just step into the picture and take on some of that care work’.”

Suriani contends that many programmes do not address the fundamental inequality in gender care work. — Bernama photo

For now, I am a full participant in the labour force, but unless something changes, I expect that I will have to be my mother’s primary caretaker in the next few years.

I hope assistance, be it support from the government, flexible working hours and arrangements to accommodate care work, or more affordable options for my mother to receive the care that she needs as she nears the end, would be available.

Mostly, I hope society would not consider me taking time off to provide care for my mother in the future as ‘special treatment’.

‘No roses’ needed. — Bernama