An analysis by Hamish Jenkins, RIPESS participant

Picture: ILO

17.06.2024_ RIPESS engaged in the Conference General Discussion (CGD) on Decent Work and the Care Economy at the 112th session International Labour Conference (ILC) of June 2024 with five primary objectives.

  1. Ensure that the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) features strongly in the agreed conclusions of the CGD.
  2. Counter any language that would legitimize a push for the commodification of the care economy as a source of profit.
  3. The care economy must be advanced within a human rights framework for both users and providers of care services.  This must ensure special mention of the human rights of particularly vulnerable groups, to include notably workers in the informal economy, migrant workers and racialized communities, many of whom are women.
  4. The care economy is recognized as a public good (with tax justice issues as an underlying theme to ensure the requisite State resources to make it a public good).
  5. Overcome the tendency to focus exclusively on “productive” work at the expense of “reproductive work”.

As RIPESS representative, Hamish Jenkins had the opportunity to make an intervention at the opening of the CGD on 3rd of June, and promote SSE throughout the Conference. Due to time constraints the intervention was reduced to less than one minute and prioritized the need for public measures to support SSE, as well as care as a human right and global public good. The uncut version was sent to the Workers drafting group members. This helped inform their negotiating positions on SSE, which they strongly supported, along with a number of governments, including the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC), represented by Brazil, the European Union (EU), represented Belgium, and a few other countries, notably Canada,Australia and Zimbabwe. Proactive efforts were made to remind governments of their commitments made in the landmark 2022 ILO resolution on decent work and the social and solidarity economy.

Achievements on the SSE front

SSE appears in all five sections of the agreed conclusions that were formally adopted at the closing of the Conference on 14 June 2024, and will now constitute a formal International Labour Organization (ILO) Resolution. Below are relevant extracts from the agreed text: 

  1. Context – decent work and the care economy: an urgent need for action

Para. 7. “…. Care workers are increasingly organized. These efforts represent progress towards transforming the unequal division of care work between men and women into a more equal organization of care, promoting social co-responsibility among the State, the private sector, families, the social and solidarity economy (SSE) and the community.“ 

2. A common understanding of the care economy

Para 10. “Care work is provided through the public sector and the private sector, including Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). It is also provided by the non-profit sector, the SSE and Households…”

  1. Guiding principles

Para. 26. “Public and private enterprises, cooperatives and other SSE entities, play a role in the provision of quality care, investment in sustainable and modern care infrastructure, and provision of training and employment opportunities.  

  1. Advancing decent work in the care economy

Para 30. “Taking into account the above principles, governments, employers’ and workers’ Organizations, as appropriate to their spheres of responsibility, with support from the ILO, should: …

– (j) create an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises and develop a conducive environment for SSE entities, including gender-responsive policies that promote  productivity, investment in education and skills development, and enhanced access to business opportunities, formalization and finance; …
– (r) support MSMEs and SSE entities, including cooperatives and other community-led initiatives, that deliver quality care services, including through capacity-building, skills development and access to finance; …”

  1. The Role of the International Labour Organization

Para 31. “In line with the principles and priorities set out in these conclusions, the Organization, in consultation with constituents should further develop its comprehensive work on the care economy across its strategic objectives and direct its efforts to: …

  • (e) provide technical assistance to promote the effective protection of migrant care workers; domestic workers; community health and care workers; workers in cooperatives and other SSE entities; care workers in the informal economy; and workers with family responsibilities; …”

This outcome represents significant advances for the SSE agenda on a number of fronts. Compared to last years’ ILO resolution on decent work and a just transition, where SSE was referenced only once (see RIPESS article of June 2023), SSE is structurally embedded in all sections of this latest resolution, which gives a strong mandate for the ILO to advance SSE development in the care economy. The employers group tried to reference the private sector as the main accompanying driver jointly with the public sector and families in the provision of care. When SSE was added during the negotiations, employers attempted to subsume SSE under “sustainable enterprises” (which could be said was historically the case when cooperatives were listed under this category in the 2007 ILO Conclusions on sustainable enterprises), but the final text recognizes SSE as quite a distinct category from MSMEs and other profit-oriented enterprises and requiring its own types of support, even when listed along with other actors.

In addition, during the ILC, the ILO launched four country briefs as part of the ILO’s initiative on provision of care through cooperatives and the wider SSE (AraEngFreSpa). The briefs on ColombiaLebanonOPT and Zimbabwe provide a summary of the country assessments undertaken and the next steps envisioned. Planned activities include validation by national stakeholders and training workshops utilizing ILO’s tools with piloting envisioned in each of the countries. In Colombia, a video and a write up highlight the progress of the work of the ILO in advancing community based care services in indigenous communities and among midwives. For more on the ILO’s work on provision of care through the cooperative, social and solidarity economy, see here. Plans are in place to expand in other countries including Bangladesh, Bolivia, Honduras, Mexico, and Uzbekistan. The ILO is also currently planning a care cooperative exchange between countries which have experiences in social and solidarity economy provision of care services. 

Care work is not a commodity (or is it still through PPPs?)

Another major achievement is that the workers group successfully invoked the 1944 Philadelphia Declaration (which is an amendment to the 1919 original ILO constitution) that states that labour is not a commodity. The Guiding Principles, in para. 16 state: “Just as labour is not a commodity, labour in the care economy is not a commodity…” 

While this was celebrated as a victory, workers still expressed concern that care as a commodity still entered through the backdoor with references to public-private partnerships (PPPs). Throughout the negotiations, this was a very difficult issue that workers had to deal with, since not only employers but also a large number of governments from both the North and the South wanted references to PPPs, partly one can assume because it relates to the degree to which they have the resources to fulfil their obligations of care provision as a public good and human right (see below). In the closing plenary before adoption of the Conclusions, a representative of workers from the Philippines voiced strong reservations on para 25, which reads: “Public-private partnerships that leverage the strengths of both public and private sectors can help scale quality care services without overburdening either side, fostering a more sustainable care ecosystem.” The representative noted that PPPs have fallen far short of their expectations and in practice prioritize profit over people and that “this issue is not settled”.

A ”rights based-” rather than a “human rights-” based approach

There was a major expectation from a wide range of participants that the agreed conclusion would include strong language on a human rights-based approach for both receivers and providers of care services. Proponents included in particular workers, GRULAC, Canada and Australia, while opponents included employers and a few governments, who wanted to delete “human”. Many other governments just stood on the sidelines. The end result is that the final text makes no reference to “human rights” but speaks of a “rights-based” approach. To people not familiar with these terminologies, the distinction may not be very clear. RIPESS consulted an SSE legal scholar, Willy Tadjudje, who explained that the difference is that the “human rights approach” refers to rights that are universally recognised and enshrined in international texts that take precedence over national laws. A “rights-based approach” refers to “positive law”, i.e. the law as laid down by the legislator and compiled in the Acts and regulations. It is necessarily national and differs from one country to another. There is thus a danger that this could mean hiding behind legality (national laws) to shirk responsibilities enshrined in international human rights law. This issue is thus also not settled.

On the positive side, there were attempts that were successfully crushed to place the rights of migrant workers outside the jurisdiction of national labour laws, while in fact they should apply to all workers, irrespective of nationality. The text recognizes that: “Migrant workers, many of whom are women, often are not able to exercise fully the same rights as other workers.” It calls on preventing and addressing “all forms of discrimination” against care workers, including migrant workers and ensuring “effective access to labour protection and social security, including through labour inspection, for all care workers, in all types of employment, especially to those most at risk of insufficient or inadequate protection” including migrant workers. It also calls to promote “the voice and representation of, and consult with” different types of care worker organizations, including those representing migrant workers. They should also receive technical assistance from the ILO and be a differentiated subject of strengthened research of care work trends. In addition, despite many attempts to delete all references to “racialized” groups, these still appear, even if only once, under preventing and addressing all forms of discrimination.

No explicit mention of care as a public good…Nor social reproduction

During the closing plenary before adoption of the agreed conclusions, the government Rapporteur (Spain) of the CGD outlined some of the salient points that were intensely discussed but for which no agreement was reached and remain unfinished business. In addition to the question of human rights, he highlighted the issues of public goods and social reproduction.

The issue of recognizing care as a public good was a key priority of many non-governmental participants, especially the workers. From the outset of the negotiations, they faced a barrage of opposition from a large number of governments, including by some of the wealthiest countries. One of the purported arguments they heard was that “we cannot call care provision a public good because for example we cannot meet all the childcare demands we face in our country”. Underlying these arguments it would seem, is the lack of public funding raised and allocated to meet all care needs. Worse, some of the same wealthy countries made attempts to dilute language in the first draft presented by the ILO Office, which called for “the expansion of the fiscal space to invest in the care economy”, by deleting “expansion” and replacing by “ensuring”, which could be read as maintaining the status quo rather than promoting progressive taxation on wealthier individuals and corporations within countries and internationally (i.e. the global tax justice agenda under fierce negotiations at the UN General Assembly). The compromise text reads “exploring options to expand fiscal space…”.

Even if care as a public good did not make it into the final document, many speakers in the closing plenary agreed that a major step in the right direction was that the text recognizes that:

The State has a primary responsibility for care provision, funding, regulation and ensuring high standards of quality, safety and health for care workers and care recipients. This includes the allocation of the necessary resources and the adoption and maintenance of a robust policy and regulatory framework.(…)” (Para.24)

On the question of social reproduction, the uncut RIPESS statement to the opening of the CGD says that: “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 ILO Office report to the CGD states on its 17th parragraph that:

“The care economy is responsible for the provision of care and services that contribute to the nurturing, support and reproduction of current and future populations. As such, care work sustains life.”

It is a missed opportunity that the final text does not squarely acknowledge the invisible yet essential life sustaining role of care work as “reproduction”, without which “production” is not possible. The closest it gets is in the opening paragraph: “Care is central to human, social, economic and environmental well-being, and sustainable development. Care work, paid and unpaid, is essential to all other work.”

Great progress was made during this Conference on advancing the SSE agenda, but within a broader context where a lot more work remains to be done! 

Check out the document on the Outcome of the General Discussion Committee on Decent Work and the Care Economy (2024) from ILO website.