American Univesity of Beirut

Care and Work: Are they Mutually Exclusive?

​​​​​​By Elham Chaiban


I can vividly recall the day my mother got a call from the doctor's office; the latter said: “Your mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Life expectancy is around 6 years."

11 years later, my grandma is still alive and well, the doctor crediting the good care she had been given. Care work evidently has the potential to extend life expectancy, yet it remains invisible and undervalued, and often not recognised as work. To argue that care work - performed primarily by women - is indeed a form of labor, I will reflect on some more personal anecdotes to highlight the value both care work and emotional labor add to our lives.

My grandma has always preferred living alone. Granting her desire, she was kept in her home with a care worker to look out for her instead of traditional alternatives. However, it was only after my mother took her in that she regained her health after it had been deteriorating. Care work is unique in this regard; when such activities are capitalized, the quality of care differs significantly when someone is paid to take care of patients versus family members voluntarily doing so. Such discrepancy is because care work depends on long-term emotional interactions and the quality of the relationship between the giver and receiver of care. Despite this form of labor being unique, it remains widely undervalued in both its paid and unpaid forms. For non-profitable care work, society assumes that care is a reward in itself because we often do it for people out of love or obligation. Consequently, workers become victims of a poorly compensated waged labor.

I might be going out on a limb in saying that not one day can pass in anyone's life without encountering some form of care work. I, for one, realized the presence of this labor when I lived alone briefly. I remember thinking “oh right, the sink doesn't empty itself" or “I actually don't have an infinite flow of water to my dispenser". I know, mind blowing! The point is, because we're so used to seeing it happen, care work becomes a norm and is stripped of its labor identity. It dissolves against the stresses and events of everyday life to become invisible, a running presence in the background of life. Yet, when I had to care for myself, I was faced with the time and effort - both physical and emotional - it requires. It was like having a day job, so why isn't it placed in the same ranks as one? Why isn't it valued as much as other types of jobs?

Caring for oneself is the most universal form of care work, but when the latter goes beyond that, the nature of the labor becomes more complex. If I leave the house deciding not to tidy up because I didn't feel like it, there would be no serious repercussions to my actions – except maybe being judged for being messy. When someone is hired to perform care work though, the expectations are much higher.

Another example would be the housework system in Lebanon. The migrant women hired for housekeeping are expected to complete the necessary care in a robot-like manner. We undermine the human effort and complexity it takes to achieve the tasks.

“Shamika, come here now!"

Shamika approached with a limp, her hand bandaged. When I asked her what happened, she explained that she fell down the stairs and hurt herself.

“Yes madame?"

“Lift this suitcase up to the top of the closet."

I was shocked at the lack of empathy my friend's mom showed. When Shamika tried to object saying her back hurt, she was accused of unwarranted nagging, because after all, she is a cooking-cleaning robot, a paid one as well. This is where the concept of emotional labor comes into play, as these care workers are expected to only show emotions desired by the household, and endure yelling and name calling with silence and a nod. Emotional labor accompanies paid care work in all its forms: nursing, babysitting, elderly care, and even teaching at all its levels, but it is not in the formal job description of any of these positions, and thus remains undervalued.

Women have borne the greatest burden of neoliberalism, especially in the context of care work. The neoliberal ideology of “do more for less" has kept informal care work and emotional labor unrecognized and uncompensated – which then enables the exploitation of the more vulnerable care workers like Shamika. Neoliberalism has given rise to many exploitative systems such as the Kafala system in parts of the Arab world, which leaves much room for the abuse and misuse of migrant workers. Neoliberalism has also undervalued women-dominated fields by the feminisation of this labor, deeming some occupations more women-oriented, with a man-dominated perspective. In a circular fashion, the feminisation of care work leads to a high female occupancy of positions in these fields, and employers purposely maintain the high influx of female workers to keep its feminized image. This is to embellish care work as affective work or “doing what you love" as women are perceived as emotional laborers by nature, and as such the monetary rewards are secondary. Recognising that all the emotional and physical effort that goes into caring for other people actually constitutes work or labor is an immediate opposition to unjust and exploitative neoliberal ideologies.

Care is intrinsically a property that defines collective action, empathy, and equality. Yet, under neoliberalism and the patriarchy, it has been commodified, exploited, and often not recognised as labor. Here is where I'd like to make the distinction between what care is, and what care ought to be. What care is now is nothing but another commodity under late capitalism. What care ought to be is a radical opposition to the exploitation of not only care workers, but workers in all fields alike. While overthrowing an entire system might seem a bit too optimistic for my purposes, if the word labor pops into your mind after emotional, or work after care, then I have succeeded in convincing you that care work is indeed, labor.

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