The Case for State Payments for Care Work

When it comes to gender equality, women’s economic participation and opportunity in Singapore ranks highly — 20th in the world.

Yet,  we still see persistent gender delineations when it comes to care work and economic participation amongst married couples in Singapore. Why then, this seeming contradiction?

The answer lies in the prevailing view held by the state that care work be privatised — a “private concern” for individuals, as opposed to a concern for society to support as a community. This has meant that women shoulder the care work burden while having to juggle wage work. Though some women may be able to outsource this care work to family members or domestic workers, the privatisation of care work means that women in Singapore are left dependent on others for their financial stability, unfairly placing them in a disadvantageous position. I argue that Singapore should take bigger steps towards making care work valued and supported by society by paying for the informal, private care work that is currently being done by women.

The Privatisation of Care Work in Singapore

The mental and financial stress around the care work that builds and supports a family in Singapore [1] created by what American political philosopher Joan Tronto calls, the “privatisation” of care.

What this means is that individuals receive as much care as they can pay for with their own financial and mental resources. That is, parents are expected to be prepared to bear most of the financial and mental strain of child-rearing on their own. Consequently, it is a system of care that disproportionately rewards and relies on those with resources [2].

We see this  in Singapore, a country with limited welfare and social safety nets for citizens, and  informal care workers. Though there are some subsidies and tax reliefs to alleviate the financial burden of care such as the BabyBonus scheme, and parental leave to give parents the flexibility to care, these provisions are extremely limited [3] and conditional upon means testing, employment status and citizenship [4].

Furthermore, Singapore’s persistent workaholic culture [5] means that parents are stigmatised for taking maternity [6], paternity [7] or childcare leave. Indeed, many fathers are not playing their part in caregiving and parenting in Singapore — 6 in 10 fathers in Singapore did not take paternity leave in 2018 [8].  Singapore’s high stress work culture, high cost of living, and limited social safety nets mean that raising a child remains expensive [9] and stressful. All of this suggests a lack of recognition and respect for the care work that individuals have to engage in.

By contrast, care work Nordic countries is more socialised — the community acknowledges the importance of care work, and the state ensures a base level of care and education for all [10]. Parents receive far more financial support and workplace benefits, so that care work is less of a strain. For instance, Norwegian and Swedish parents are entitled to a monthly child benefit allowance per child, and between 44 to 64 weeks of paid parental leave. Kindergarten and childcare fees are capped in Norway and Denmark, while Finnish children receive free daycare from 8 months old to age 7 [11]. Workplace culture that encourages flexible work and discourages overtime amongst its employees also allows parents to comfortably balance wage and care work [12]. Needless to say, these policies socialise care work, and ensure that parents need not bear the financial and mental strain of parenting with their private resources alone.

Privatising Care Work Encourages Precarity

Aside from making care work expensive and stressful for parents, the privatisation of care work also leaves women in society economically dependent on the aid of their male partners and family members.

Women in the family play an outsized role in conducting the care work to maintain the family [13]. While some women have the luxury of partially outsourcing their care work to after-school care centres, foreign domestic labour, or their parents and parents-in-law [14], most mothers still juggle the wage work and care work alone [15] .

This juggling means that many mothers end up sacrificing one or the other. Among married parents in Singapore, mothers are less economically active than fathers, and women were more likely to cite family-related responsibilities as the main reason for not working [16]. This suggests that women have been sacrificing pursuit of work and a wage in the market, to engage in care work, preventing them from ensuring financial stability for themselves.

Women’s lack of financial stability due to parenting in their younger years has negative repercussions for their retirement security as well. Singapore’s national pension scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), deducts a portion of one’s salary and places it in a CPF account, while employers add a percentage of the employee’s salary to their employee’s CPF account monthly. This money serves as a form of retirement savings, and can be tapped into when the employee reaches the age of 55 [17]. In essence, one’s CPF amount is directly tied to one’s monthly wage. It is evident that women who have to take time off work or leave their jobs to be caretakers not only sacrifice their financial stability today, but their retirement security as well. This is suggested by evidence that shows that Singaporean women’s CPF balances are consistently lower than those of men in the same age group [18].

Even support schemes launched by the government to help working mothers financially, are residual and insufficient. The Working Mothers’ Child Relief [19] and Grandparent Caregiver Relief [20] are tax reliefs to financially support working mothers in juggling care work and wage work by “subsidising” the lost income due to care work. However, the tax relief is a residual form of support — aid given as a form of “last resort” — since it is levied upon a woman’s declared income. This leaves mothers who have had to take a significant pay-cut or stop working altogether, undercompensated for their work. Women are left in a vulnerable position of having to rely on male partner’s salary or help from others in their family.

On the other end of the income spectrum, women who are able to afford the outsourcing of their care work inadvertently play a role in the “precarity” of women in society. In most cases, foreign domestic workers arrive in Singapore, tied to large amounts of debt and are subject to a constraint of their freedoms in exchange for employment. As Singaporean philosopher Chin Chuanfei argues, migrant domestic workers in Singapore do “precarious work,” for they are vulnerable to the domination of their employees, as they enter Singapore saddled with debt, are restricted in the type of employment they may obtain, and are required to live and work in their employers’ homes [21]. Nevertheless, foreign domestic workers conduct much of the care work that sustains the Singaporean household and sometimes, even end up raising Singapore’s youngest generations [22]. Though foreign domestic workers are non-citizens, it doesn’t negate the fact that they form a large section of the female population in Singapore who are disempowered as a result of the care work that they do for the community.

How can we say that we are a country that empowers women when so many women in Singapore are in one way or another, set back by their engagement with informal or formal care work?

The Economy of Care Work

If the care work so crucial to maintaining the social fabric of Singapore is so stressful and expensive, how can we best support those who do this work?

A payment for the currently unpaid and undervalued care work would allow family members to care for their loved-ones — an undertaking not to be viewed as a choice, but a fulfilment of filial duties — without having to worry about the financial burdens that come with such a sacrifice of time. Our system should be able to care for the weakest within society, without having to put their loved-ones through emotional, mental and financial stress.

This care work is, after all, the work that maintains Singaporean society — it is the work that raises our youngest generation, cares for the oldest generation and ensures the physical and mental health of the working population.

I aim is neither to give a final solution to the discrimination that women face, nor to provide details for how such a solution can be implemented. Attaching a wage to care work will not solve all the problems that women face with regards to care work in Singapore — more needs to be done to do away with the gendered nature of care work in Singapore. Furthermore, the amount to be paid out, who to bear the cost, and other mechanics behind the implementation of payments for care work will surely have to be discussed and debated based on evidence and data, a topic that politicians and economists are more well-equipped than I am to speak on.

In the meantime, tabling the idea of attaching a wage to care work to recognise it’s value to society and support those engaging in it — socialise care work instead of privatise it — would be a significant first step towards egalitarian gender relations in Singapore.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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