The future of work: Who will care about the caregivers?

The World Bank (WB), an international financial institution with a questionable track-record of interventions in the developing world, is currently thinking about the future of work as it is preparing its 2019 World Development Report. They, and every other policy wonk these days it seems, are pondering how robots and technology will change how we live, love, learn and earn.

Often, these speculative discussions take place in far off mountains of Switzerland and in the executive suites of global power brokers. In most instances, the conversations are rarefied and divorced from reality.

Input from individuals who will make up an even greater share of the future economy, care workers, is non-existent or minimal. Yet, the level of protections and rights we secure for individuals in this most marginalized sector of our economy will most certainly reflect the level afforded to other workers across industries.

Jobs in the care industry are the among the fastest growing, according to the projections of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A growing and aging population in developed countries, coupled with increasing number of millennials having children while both partners hold jobs, will further amplify the need for care work.

The care industry broadly encompasses individuals who provide live-in or home care assistance for the elderly, for the disabled, for immobilized people and for children. They are also commonly known as domestic workers, who take on the roles of nannies, chauffeurs and housekeepers.

Many consider the domestic worker the “original gig economy worker,” due to a high degree of inconsistency and insecurity associated with their work and lack of access to benefits and a safety net. The work they do and services they provide are undervalued and rarely counted by economists.

In their current form, the professions in this sector are anything but desirable. People working in the care industry have been historically marginalized and are extremely vulnerable. The average median income for home-care workers in the U.S. is roughly $13,000 per year, compared to the annual median income across other professions, which hovers around $44,000 per year.

Women are grossly over-represented in this industry, as ares racial minorities. Currently, around 40% of home-care workers in the U.S. are immigrants, many of them undocumented and thus at increased risk of exploitation. While their daily jobs entail maintaining the dignity of another human being, their own dignity and opportunity to provide for their own families is grossly diminished.

There are also very few national or international standards for the work performed by domestic workers or ways to scientifically quantify its value. As Anna Blackshaw, writer and photographer documenting lives of domestic workers in California, observed, it’s difficult to measure “just another happy child or shining kitchen floor,” as compared to the metrics of the latest tech widget.

Even scarcer are labor protections, guaranteed days off or retirement benefits. Many domestic workers work until they are physically spent or bedridden. Stories of verbal, physical and sexual abuse by employers are all too common. Being fired for being sick occurs too often. Not being paid for months on end is reality for too many.

However, change is on the way. It comes from Seattle, WA and is the result of prolonged and tireless advocacy by Working Washington, a non-profit that initially galvanized around the issue of the $15 minimum wage.

The group’s efforts have resulted in a first-ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, adopted in July 2018 by the Seattle City Council. While the document falls short of the activists’ demands for securing guaranteed written contracts, it is still a step in the right direction for protecting domestic workers.

The bill requires that all domestic workers, even those classified as independent contractors, must be paid at least the equivalent of Seattle’s minimum wage. It forbids employers from retaining workers’ personal documents and calls for creation of a board to advise on future regulations.

These efforts complement the work of national organizations such as National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which have also been on the front lines protecting the rights of domestic workers.

One must remain hopeful that examples from Washington State and the work of grassroots activists such as NDWA will find their way into the World Bank’s report as ideas worth spreading and replicating. This is particularly important at a time when workers, both in the United States and across the world, plunge deeper into an uncertain future and  a tech-dominated – and often exploitative – economy.