The International Labour Conference (ILC) 2024 has just begun and yesterday, during the general discussion on the care economy, this year’s main theme, Hamish Jenkins, the RIPESS representative at the conference, took the floor for almost a minute to read an abridged version of this text to those present.

Pictured here are colleagues from Homenet, member of ASEC, the continental member of RIPESS in Asia, and other RIPESS partners such as WIEGO as well as Hamish Jenkins among those present at the conference.

The care economy, in particular child care and care for the elderly and people with disabilities, has tended to be ignored by conventional economic thinking. The tendency has been to focus exclusively on “productive” work at the expense of “reproductive work”, wherein care work plays a crucial role in life reproduction and life sustenance therefore setting the pre-conditions and bases for national economies and societies to function.

The care economy has gained importance with the escalation of multiple crises, ranging conflicts, climate change-induced disruptions, pandemics and economic shocks. A clear and present danger is to perceive the care economy as a growing source of profit, through the “commodification” of care services. If this tendency prevails, it would constitute a violation of human rights, in terms both the right to affordable access to quality care services for all, and the labour rights of care workers, carried out mostly by groups subject to marginalisation, such as women, racialised communities and migrants, often under precarious conditions in terms of wages, benefits and general conditions of safety and dignity at work.

The care economy must be advanced within a human rights and co-responsibility framework for both users and providers of care services, as well as for those who have the obligation to provide them: public entities.  By extension, care economy services must be understood as a public good, whereby Member States have an obligation, individually and through international cooperation, to progressively realize these rights through adequate forms of support and redistribution, while avoiding measures that would be tantamount to violating the principle of “non-retrogression”, which could occur through privatization of care services as a source of profit-making opportunities. Such moves are likely to risk excluding those that cannot afford their higher costs, while worsening the working conditions of people, mostly women, who still need to provide these services regardless of their administrative and life situation.

The Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS), along with many other participants at this Conference, strongly advocates for public measures to support cooperatives and other not-for-profit entities defined by the ILO Resolution on decent work and the social and solidarity economy of 2022, as an avenue to develop the care economy along with strictly publicly run care services. By its non-profit and democratic characteristics, the social and solidarity economy (or SSE) offers an avenue for providing quality and affordable care, while supporting the transition from informal to formal economy and the labour rights of care workers, within a vision of progressive realization. In addition, the creation of decent jobs in the sector and the dignity of the people who do them, mainly migrant women, is promoted. The public sector invests, through grants and subsidies, for the creation of SSE projects that promote care work; transforming the sector and generating a proposal for the continuous improvement of care services. As a consequence, working conditions are also improved, with fair prices and actions for the self-care of workers, based on the values of the SSE. 

There are many examples documented in the Office report on the Conference General Discussion and other ILO-supported government initiatives that promote the care economy through SSE. The ILO is promoting an innovative interregional and plurinational program, which uses the 5R Framework to promote cooperatives and other entities of the SSE as providers of health care services with better quality in decent working conditions. Colombia is one of the countries that leads this programme through two pilot projects financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, in the departments of Cesar and Chocó. This project is part of the National Care System promoted by the Ministry of Equality and Equity and will focus on care in an indigenous community and midwifery in another community. It is essential that the Agreed Conclusions of this Conference General Discussion endorse the support, financing and emulation of such approaches to scale up the role of the SSE as a major contributor to the care economy as a global public good.