Understanding the Dynamics of the Care Economy in Bangladesh

Posted on 16.01.2024
A middle-aged village woman sits in the backyard sewing for her family
PC: Jahangir Alam Onuchcha, Shutterstock

Jinat Jahan Khan, Research Associate, DataSense at iSocial

The care economy consists of all unpaid and paid care work and services that contribute to the direct and indirect care of children, elderly, sick, disabled and adults. Care work refers to domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, washing, feeding, taking care of individuals, and so on. This type of work is highly feminised, which means that women face the disproportionate burden of taking on unpaid care and domestic work and services. In many cases, this work is invisible and undervalued. However, care work that contributes to social production can be both paid and unpaid now. Even though it can be paid, it is often undervalued and underpaid, with no framework for fair work (e.g., workers’ rights, paid leave, transparent contracts). Unpaid work is considered as a subset of all paid work that does not yield any direct monetary benefits. It is a form of non-market work that can be either in the production boundary of the System of National Accounts (SNAs) or outside the production boundary of the SNAs. Within the boundary, unpaid work may include work that contributes to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but the worker does not receive any monetary benefits e.g., unpaid family workers of subsistence farming. Outside the boundary, unpaid work primarily refers to domestic labour occurring inside the households. Unpaid care work is a form of the latter category. Similar to unpaid work, the paid care sector is highly dominated by women who are low-paid and are from bottom of the socio-economic pyramid compared to other forms of paid work.

Unpaid Care Work: The Enormous Burden on Women

In Bangladesh, women spend seven times more time on care work than men on average. According to the Time Use Survey 2021 of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UN Women Bangladesh, women use around 25% of their daily time on unpaid care work including cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of children and the elderly, and so on. On the contrary, their male counterparts only spend 3.3% of their daily time on such tasks. It was also found that the workload of women increases by over 151% with marriage, but for men, the percentage is over 78% after marriage. With age, the burden of unpaid care work on women decreases very steadily compared to men. For women aged 25-59 years, the burden increases with a peak at 6.2 hours. After this age bracket, it reduces to around 2.7 hours per day. In comparison, men aged 15-24 years spend 0.5 hours, and it only increases to 0.8 hours for men aged 25-59 years.

In terms of geographic location, the burden does not differ much. Women residing in rural areas spend 4.7 hours daily on unpaid domestic services and 1.2 hours on unpaid care work. In urban areas, women spend 4.4 hours and 1.3 hours a day respectively on unpaid domestic services and unpaid care work. In the case of education, there are some slight differences in the burden of care work. For instance, women with no formal education spend 4.1 hours while women with primary education and secondary education spend 4.9 hours, but women above secondary education spend 4.3 hours per day. It has also been observed that men are more likely to join employment-related activities and women are more likely to join unpaid domestic and care work with marriage.

In Bangladesh, care workers that are paid are mainly women from poor households who provide home-based and undervalued care services that are often expected from female household members for free. They are one of the most vulnerable groups in society. These paid care workers are mainly domestic workers, nurses and midwives, and female migrants who worked as care workers mainly in Middle Eastern countries.

Low Wages: Domestic Workers

It is estimated that over two million domestic workers are in Bangladesh. Domestic work includes a range of tasks such as cooking, washing dishes, mopping floors, doing laundry and ironing, and other household chores. Note that these are included as domestic work if these are done in a household. In case these are performed in an establishment, such as cleaning floors or cooking in hotels and restaurants or cleaning in industrial settings, these will not be categorised as domestic work. A report on domestic workers found that 89% of them do dishwashing, 82.5% of them do cleaning, and 80% of them sweep the house; these three are the most common household chores done by domestic workers (Ahmed, 2013). Other common tasks include cloth washing (77.5%), cleaning household furniture (61%), cooking (50.8%), cleaning stairs (33.3%), cloth ironing (27.5%), taking care of children (22.5%), and taking care of older family members (5%).

Despite the importance of this type of work, wages for domestic workers are very low and there is no minimum wage set by the regulatory framework for this group of workers. The minimum wage for the Readymade Garment (RMG) sector has recently been increased to monthly BDT 12,500 (considered as a standard for sectors without any legally set minimum wage) and the living wage for Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh, is monthly BDT 25,497 (Global Living Wage Coalition, 2023). In contrast to these, most domestic workers earn only BDT 5,000 per month, on average, even if they work for 40 or more hours weekly (Ghosh, 2021).

Skill Development Training for Paid Care Workers

To secure better payment for their work, a common option for workers is to enhance their skills. However, there are very few opportunities for paid care workers to get any training in Bangladesh. Domestic workers rarely receive any kind of skill development training from a formal institution or organisation. In general, they develop skills needed for their work in their own households or while working at their employer’s residence. According to a survey conducted on domestic workers by Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), only 3% of respondents received skill development training to run small businesses, and they do not receive their work-related training at all. There are organisations like Shapla Neer and Nari Maitree that provide training to domestic workers. Shapla Neer provides health education such as hygiene and sexual health, and training classes on household chores such as sewing and ironing. Nari Maitree also provides skill development training such as the use of various electronic cooking instruments, cleaning, and how to take care of children and the elderly time to time.

With financial support from Oxfam, the Domestic Workers’ Rights Network (DWRN) and Nari Maitree have also provided training and support to more than 5,000 workers across different areas in Dhaka and Tongi. It included training in work readiness skills, life skills and rights issues. On the other hand, the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) has courses on housekeeping for female workers but only for those who are going to participate in the overseas market. The curriculum is prepared by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). However, the focus of these trainings is mainly to prepare the workers for migrating to foreign countries where they have the prospect of earning higher than what they earn in Bangladesh.

Platformisation of Paid Care Work

Other than traditional paid care work, there are now very few platforms that offer paid care work. Two of the most common companies in Bangladesh that have platformised paid household and care work are HelloTask and Amar Astha. HelloTask is an on-demand service platform that connects domestic workers with customers. At present, it mainly operates in Dhaka, and has more than 2,000 domestic workers registered with them. As observed in the Fairwork Bangladesh Ratings 2022 and Fairwork Bangladesh Ratings 2023 reports, HelloTask workers may earn a bit more than the traditional average and the platform ensures a minimum hourly wage for the workers’ contributions. But many elements of the framework of fair work is yet to be fulfilled by the platform, such as providing fair terms in the contract and ensuring better working conditions, health insurance, and other facilities.

The platformisation of domestic work is surely formalising the informal sector, but this shift in nature also calls for the workers to come with some skills, including a level of digital literacy, before joining these platforms. While many platforms are providing training or bringing in user-friendly solutions for workers to make them ready to be connected with households, the payment for this skilled and trained labour in the domestic market is yet to meet the living wage standard estimated for Bangladesh. This also indicates the importance of a shift in the mindset of the recipients of the care work. In consideration of the different areas of living expenses in an urban city in Bangladesh, it may also benefit the workers if they are offered non-cash incentives or benefits which would help them meet their living expenses, such as medical insurance, and lessen their burden of working overtime (in addition to the unpaid care work they do in their own households).

In conclusion, the care economy in Bangladesh is still in an unsystematic situation. While we surely need to work on policies to recognise and reward unpaid care work, there is also room for improvement in the paid care sector. Decent work for care workers needs to be promoted through better job opportunities and policies that value women’s efforts and have better salaries and other benefits. Moreover, investing in quality jobs in this economy will also promote greater gender equality and create dignified jobs for Bangladeshi women.