'It is indeed a shame -- yet perhaps telling -- that we needed a global pandemic in order to appreciate the value of care.'PHOTO CREDIT: PXFUEL

The COVID-19 pandemic could not have made it any clearer: the world would simply stop without care work. 

All across the world, women, especially working class women, women of colour, migrant women and women living in rural communities perform the largest share of underpaid, or completely unpaid, social reproductive labour. Social reproduction refers to the processes that reproduce the necessities for basic human life, such as feeding, educating, nurturing, cleaning, or, summed up in one word: caring. The United Nations estimates that, globally, women and girls do more than three-quarters of all unpaid care work – a total of 12.5 billion hours a day, the equivalent of US $11 trillion. Yet, as feminist movements Global Women’s Strike and Women of Colour GWS have been saying for the past four decades, this money is not going into women’s pockets. Instead of reaping the fruits of their own labour, women constitute 70 percent of the world’s poor. This is because, simply put, care is not considered labour. Care is seen as inherent to women’s nature, as part and parcel of the ‘eternal feminine.'

This crisis of care has been entirely invisible, in the sense that reproductive labour has gone unrecognised, undervalued and underpaid (if paid at all), despite it laying the very foundations for life. COVID-19 may have changed this invisibility by opening the public’s eyes to the indispensable labour of caregivers: from health-care workers, cleaners, educators, those caring for the vulnerable, all those sustaining life by putting their own on hold. COVID-19 has therefore revealed another, hidden pandemic that has plagued women’s existence since the institution of the gendered division of labour. It is a shame - yet perhaps telling - that we needed a global pandemic in order to appreciate the value of care. 

"It is a shame - yet perhaps telling - that we needed a global pandemic in order to appreciate the value of care."

Yet clapping for such carers, as has become a weekly fixture in the UK, is not enough. Because more than revealed, the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated this pre-existing global crisis of care. Despite early reports suggesting that men are more likely to die as a result of the virus, women’s day-to-day life is disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women comprise 70 percent of the global healthcare workforce, the majority of whom are on the front-line as nurses, midwives, community health workers, or health facility service staff. Instead of raising salaries or ensuring protective gear, the British government has shown its gratitude to frontline migrant care-workers by making them pay double for health-care with the NHS surcharge fee. It was only after public outcry that the Tory government decided to scrap the surcharge - or, in other words, to do the bare minimum of basic human decency. 

Apart from the underpaid labour of caregivers, the pandemic has also heightened pre-existing gender inequalities in the distribution of unpaid care work. Before the virus, women were already performing three times more unpaid domestic work than men, revealing just how much the world’s formal economy was built upon an invisible economy. Now with schools and childcare centres closing, increased vulnerability of the elderly, as well as overwhelmed public services, the burden of care-work bears a heavier weight on women’s shoulders than ever before. As survivors are released early from hospitals to make space for newly infected persons, it is women who are expected to provide care and assistance for their loved ones’ physical and mental traumas. As government priorities are shifted towards the COVID-19 response, it is women who are asked to support vulnerable family members abandoned by lacking social services. As almost two billion children around the world are forced to stay home, it is women who are expected to supply childcare and education, thus constraining their ability to work. Ultimately, despite little to no compensation for their labour, it is women who are paying the highest price for this pandemic. 

"What the University’s investments, expenditures, and treatment of its most essential staff plainly demonstrate is that Cambridge fails to sustain those who sustain life itself."

By investing millions in the fossil fuel and arms industries, the University of Cambridge itself is complicit in this global devaluation of care. As an institution dedicated to the formation of future generations, it should not be investing in death and destruction, but in life and care. 

Apart from investments, colleges’ expenditures also reveal where their priorities lie. According to the latest available information, Cambridge colleges spent a total of £3 million on wine in the 2012/2013 academic year, the equivalent of 300 students’ tuition fees. While this may be dismissed as outdated, more recent information on individual colleges from 2016/2017 proves that the devaluation of care is in no way a thing of the past. Among the worst culprits (of which there is available data, considering that many colleges refuse to publish expenditures), Peterhouse spent almost double the amount on free alcoholic beverages (£42,867) than on counselling services (£23,658), both within college and on the University Counselling Service. It is also noteworthy to add that no money was spent on either student or staff training on mental health issues. Similarly, Downing spent £32,886 on free alcoholic drinks compared to £24,892 on the University Counselling Service, offering no college counselling service nor any mental health training for their staff or students. 

The most striking example of the University’s disregard for care-work lies precisely in the way it treats its care-workers. A staggering majority of Cambridge Colleges refuse to pay their most vulnerable workers the Living Wage; as of July 2019, only 8 of the 31 colleges paid all their staff the real living wage. Meanwhile, in the same year, Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope made £475,000, an emblematic symbol of the gross inequalities embedded within our very own institution, as student activists have commented. To top it all off, Toope’s latest email announcing the possibility of redundancies and pay cuts confirms the University’s devaluation of care. As Cambridge Defend Education has rightly responded: “If there are ‘voluntary pay reductions’, they must come from the 8 members of management who earn over £2.1 million a year between them, not those academic and maintenance staff who don’t even earn the Living Wage,”. 


Mountain View

Essential workers deserve more than just our platitudes

What the University’s investments, expenditures, and treatment of its most essential staff plainly demonstrate is that Cambridge fails to sustain those who sustain life itself. When our bedders, porters, nurses and supervisors -- in other words, our Cambridge caregivers -- are continuously exploited even amidst a global pandemic, we cannot afford to stay silent about our university’s complicity in the devaluation of care. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is the value of care; and we should respond with adequate remuneration, protection and recognition for this indispensable, life-saving labour.