Who cares for the kids when Mum and Dad must go to work?

Forgotten Families
November 2, 2006

Gabriela, aged 18, makes clothes for export from 7am until 6pm, seven days a week, in Honduras. Her step-sister cares for Gabriela's child, although she soon has to return to school. Gabriela's pay is too low to allow her to eat adequately, buy clean water and repair the leaky shack.

Her husband was murdered and her mother died of cancer. Too bad to be true?

Jody Heymann insists that Gabriela is not alone. Her research group at Harvard University has examined the extent of support for working parents and their children in 180 countries. More than 930 million children are being raised in households where all adults work, as hundreds of millions of people leave the land to join the formal labour force. This is affecting the ability of parents to care for children who, when young, may well be left alone and later pulled out of education to act in loco parentis . Unable to afford a cut in pay, and threatened with job loss, parents cannot stay home even with sick infants, and mobility has meant that there are fewer extended family members to help.

Increased globalisation is blamed for a declining ability to bargain over wages and conditions because jobs can readily be reallocated to places with lower labour costs. There is also the transformation of women's labour. As discriminatory bans were removed, and as the economic needs of families to have all adults in the workforce increased, the numbers of employed women rose worldwide. The percentage of the labour force made up of women doubled in the less-developed world and increased by more than a third in the developed West between 1960 and 2000.

Heymann bemoans the rise in the number of children in poor households where all adults work and insists that whether there are two parents or a lone parent at work, all must have a wage sufficient to support a family. Does this mean that when two parents work, each should get half the wages of a lone family provider? Should childless earners get their wages docked? Should wages go up with the number of children per household? Employers will consequently face demands to let people care for others while keeping a job, with extensive maternity, paternity, parental and sick leave. What then is the point of being in or bringing in business, if production is not taking place and people are paid not to be there?

Any old trade unionist could tell Heymann that the bigger the labour supply, the lower the wages, and if the capitalist can get two people for the price of one that is what he will do. It is a fallacy of modern feminism that, without discrimination, everyone could have a "breadwinner"

income. The recent rise in UK women's wages compared with men's owes as much to a fall in men's wages as a rise in women's. Couples may have believed that if both worked they could better afford a home. Instead, house prices rose to absorb two incomes.

The processes now seen in poor countries were a feature of the early Industrial Revolution, when women and children entered the mills and factories en masse. A man could hardly support himself on his wages. Family members might extend the household's supply of labour, but this capitalisation of women's and children's earnings undermined the possibility of achieving subsistence and trapped families in a cycle of poverty.

A large part of the answer in the early 19th century was restrictions on female as well as child labour. Today, as preference theory analyst Catherine Hakim has detailed, women worldwide mostly have a heterogeneous take on employment. This means working full time up to childbearing, taking time out, going back to work part time when children are at school and then working full time when children are grown up.

Only a minority of women want continuous full-time work with their children in alternative care, or Heymann's Swedish model, where parental care is recognised only in terms of leave from a job. Heymann's naive and clanking solution to the problems of underpaid, overworked parents is collectivised child-rearing. "Quality, affordable" childcare not only promises to enable women to succeed equally with men in the labour market of Paraguay as much as Leeds, it will also "make an enormous difference in children's social, emotional and cognitive development". In reality there is little evidence for the developmental benefits of childcare. But what is reality compared with what Heymann just "knows"?

Is "quality care" the staff-to-child ratio of 1:34 for three to five-year-olds in Cuba, quoted as a "success story"? Sweden has spent decades trying to provide reasonable childcare to cover most under-sevens.

It quit making provision for babies because it was harmful to them. Sweden taxes more than 50 per cent of economic output. How can other countries afford similar services when their ratios of children and elders to working-age adults are from 50 to 100 per cent higher and their incomes are so much lower? They could, Heymann answers, but for the wickedness of free trade and the debts imposed by the West.

Reassuringly, poor countries will "not need more economic assistance than the West can afford" to bring childcare to all. Employees whose rights to "sufficient wages", parental leave, flexible working and creches were denied would be able to inform international governing boards of violations. But how is International Nanny going to impose sanctions on miscreant regimes for not providing enough childcare when it is hard enough bringing some to heel for genocide? As the Western feminist vision goes global, it is sad how all humankind must be driven towards its one-size-fits-all utopia. Families worldwide deserve a more imaginative response to their difficulties and aspirations.

Patricia Morgan is author of Family Policy: Family Changes: Sweden, Italy and Britain Compared (2006).

Forgotten Families: Ending the Growing Crisis Confronting Children and Working Parents in the Global Economy

Author - Jody Heymann
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 306
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 515659 5

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