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Developing The Care Economy In Malaysia: Vital Considerations — MWGF

Investing in the Care Economy requires us to adopt a significant paradigm shift, and that is to view care as an investment, not a financial burden.

If we truly want to work towards an inclusive and sustainable future, care can no longer remain intangible, unrecognised, and gendered. Photo from Freepik.

Conversations about the Care Economy have been picking up steam in Malaysia, and for good reason.

Our nation’s population dynamics are shifting — as it stands, Malaysia has already achieved ageing nation status, and we are set to become an aged nation in 2044, a short two decades away from now.

We face the very real prospect of a shrinking working age population, as lifespans increase, while fertility rates simultaneously drop to a national low at 1.6 children per woman, now below the replacement level of 2.1. 

Meanwhile, economic gender inequality continues to persist, with our female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) standing at 56.2 per cent compared to 82 per cent for men, alongside a recorded gender pay gap of 33 per cent in 2023.

Driving this enduring inequality is the burden of Unpaid Care Work disproportionately carried by women, which remains invisible and unvalued in our national budgets and accounting. 

Formalising and strengthening the Care Economy in Malaysia has never been more important in the face of these urgent and intersecting challenges and we highlighted this during MWGF 2022, which highlighted the importance of women’s economic equity. 

Encouragingly, this need has been recognised by the government, with Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Nancy Shukri recently launching workshops for Development of the Care Industry in Malaysia. 

Understanding The Role Of Care 

As Malaysia begins to navigate formulating its own national vision for the Care Economy, it is crucial to begin with understanding the essential role care plays in the functioning and development of our societies. 

Paid or unpaid, care is the fundamental building block of communities and individuals.

It is a key facilitator for human connection — it builds us, gives us identities, capabilities, aspirations, comfort, and most importantly, security and dignity.

It is a fundamental pillar to our socioeconomic development and must be recognised as such. 

Essential care work is done when children and babies are taken care of, when the sick are treated and nursed back to health, when people are taught at schools or universities, and when houses, hospitals, places of worship and offices are cleaned.

It is in all the work that keeps a household functioning, from washing and ironing clothes, to buying groceries, to cooking, and the disposal of garbage. 

Care work provides the fundamental essentials for the elderly to age with dignity, autonomy and access.

It is also vital when it comes to reducing barriers for accessibility and health care for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) in our society as well as contributing to their economic autonomy. 

Assigning Value To Care 

As pervasive as it may be, care work goes largely ignored and unremarked. There is also a gendered element to care, with women overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of unpaid care duties at home.

Women are also overrepresented in care-related industries, a sector commonly associated with poor working conditions, high workloads, and low pay. 

Essential unpaid care work performed largely by women is unvalued and unaccounted for in typical proxies for human development such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Failing to capture the true value of unpaid labour within national accounting ultimately obscures women’s significant contributions towards the functioning of economies and society as we know it. 

If we truly want to work towards an inclusive and sustainable future, care can no longer remain  intangible, unrecognised, and gendered. 

Therefore, for care to be established as an economy, care work and its economic benefits must be recognised, valued and taken into account within our national economic and social policies. 

The goal is to establish a care industry that is regulated, professionalised, and acts in the best interests of both care workers and care recipients, to our collective benefit as a society. 

Care Is An Investment, Not A Burden 

Investing in the Care Economy requires us to adopt a significant paradigm shift, and that is to view care as an investment, not a financial burden.

Care is not something ‘nice to have’, rather, it is an absolute requirement for the sustainable functioning of our societies. 

When we invest in our care infrastructures such as our healthcare systems, our schools and education systems, and our childcare and elderly care infrastructures, we are also investing in our human capital.

We are investing in increased productivity from improved health outcomes  and the wellbeing of our labour force.

Investing in care is also investing in gender equality by removing barriers to work for women, which contributes to increasing female LFPR and unleashing their previously untapped economic potential. 

The pandemic served to bring to light our nation’s hidden crisis of Care, and it is clear the old  economic models putting the bottom line above all else are outdated and unsustainable. 

Whether it be the public or private sector, we are all equal stakeholders in advancing national development.

Funding care may incur a financial ‘cost’, however we must consider its positive cascading impacts on our nation’s wider social and economic development, especially now in the face of a rapidly changing world.

Pillars For Developing The Care Economy 

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) outlines four care policy categories that are key in establishing the Care Economy, namely care infrastructure, care-related social protection, care services, and employment-related care: 

  • Investing in care Infrastructures includes developing our critical social care infrastructures, such as upgrading our education systems and schools, bettering our health care systems, and providing care support to vulnerable populations such as the aged and disabled individuals. 
  • Care-related social protection on the other hand refers to initiatives such as cash  transfers to economically vulnerable households to support childcare and the care of older family members.  
  • Employment-related care policies include supporting parental leave, gender equitable care leave (for the care of older, disabled, or ill dependents) and the enactment of flexible working arrangements.  
  • Lastly, investing in care services can mean investing in affordable and safe childcare or elderly care available for all.  

Conclusion 

As discussed above, underpinning any future technical considerations for how the Care Economy will be formalised and regulated in Malaysia should be an understanding of the intrinsic importance of care to maintaining sustainable and flourishing societies. 

Developing a robust framework for the Care Economy is a gargantuan task, and it is not one the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development can or should carry out alone.

It requires collaboration with and stakeholdership from other key ministries such as the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Finance.

Embracing the framework of a Care Economy requires our national economic policies and budgets to be both care-sensitive and gender-responsive, as care and gender equality are inextricably linked. 

And government interventions aside, a whole of society approach is also needed, with responsibility for the provision of care shared across the government, markets, households and communities, and between genders. 

In summary, by outlining Malaysia’s vision for a Care Economy that recognises the intrinsic  importance of care, values unpaid care work, and promotes shared responsibility, we are actively forging a path towards gender equality, and a healthier, more prosperous future for all. 

MWGF is an annual event that brings together multiple stakeholders involved in the social and economic advancement of women and girls in Malaysia. The forum identifies, engages and tracks key social, economic and legislative changes that are needed to accelerate the rights and wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls. 

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.

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