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7 March 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 8:58am

“We’re on a knife-edge”: Why women are striking over the UK’s care crisis

The strikes offer a partial, fleeting glimpse beyond the crisis – into the better world available with the help of well-funded, community-owned care.

By Eleanor Penny

In a community centre in north London, kids play and tussle while a small cadre of volunteers stirs up vats of playdough, piles bowls high with snacks, and arbitrates the politics of the felt tip box. On the other side of the room, a circle of carers – mostly mothers of young children – briefly relieved of their duties, are imagining a better world. “What’s the best thing about being a parent?” “What’s the worst thing?” “What would make it easier?” “What kind of world are we striking for?” This is a strike, but not as we know it. 

Britain is buckling under a care crisis. Budget-gutted councils have been forced to strip back their social care and childcare services, leaving millions of our youngest, our oldest and our most vulnerable citizens exposed to the keen, bare edges of poverty, neglect and poor health. With around 500 nurseries and childminders closing every month, many parents and carers have been left without support as even waiting lists for part-time childcare rise uncontrollably. 

Meanwhile, the price of private provision has surged, with childcare costs rising three times faster than average wages, forcing 31 per cent of poor families into debt. Last year, one in six parents went hungry so their children could eat. And the private care sector is the beneficiary. 

Miranda Hall of the New Economics Foundation reports that “85 per cent of childcare in the UK is now run by private providers (versus 3 per cent in Germany or 4 per cent in France). While parents and childcare workers are pushed into poverty, we have seen the growing dominance of unaccountable, profit-driven global ‘super chains’ like Busy Bees and Bright Horizons.” The UK’s rapidly ageing population means ever more adults have complex needs, placing greater pressure on an already creaking, asset-stripped adult social care system. Tens of thousands of people have been left without the support they need. 

This is a story of austerity fused with an age-old tale of thankless female slog. The state sells off its most valuable assets while disowning inconveniently needful citizens – an act of sweeping public cruelty is translated into private misery. And, as so often when when the state fails, it largely falls to women to sweep up the mess.

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Across the world, women perform the vast majority of care work – the usually unpaid tasks of cleaning, cooking and caring, which keep the vulnerable out of the jaws of disaster, and keep the economy ticking along by delivering fed, housed and washed workers to office doors every morning. Indeed, Carers UK has estimated that the economic value of the unpaid care provided by women is £77bn per year. Women are more likely to be full-time carers and to incur the income penalty that usually results. 

Recent studies suggest that the gender pay gap is essentially a penalty on parenthood, as irregular hours, childcare costs and the burden of care responsibilities strangle the possibility of career progression and coerce women into lower-paid, more precarious work. Indeed, middle-aged women are far more likely to be “sandwich carers” – juggling the needs of both young children and ageing parents.

When care is paid, it is rarely paid well. NHS carers are under unprecedented strain. Nursery staff – of whom 99 per cent are women – have seen their wage packets shrink, with nearly 60 per cent suffering workplace-related anxiety. The private care sector reliably compensates for wafer-thin profit margins, and slim government stipends by relying heavily on unpaid trainee labour or underpaid, precarious contractors – with migrants particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

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When the state slashes the tax rates of corporations and wealthy individuals, the burden is borne by unseen armies of carers, labouring at the intimate coalface of UK public life, and the vulnerable people they are struggling to support.

But they’re determined to resist. On International Women’s Day (8 March), carers across the UK will strike under the banner of “Women’s Strike UK” to highlight how society heaps its most essential work on working-class women. “We are on a knife-edge,” says My Mum’s On Strike! organiser Claire English, “something has to change”. So for the second year in a row, they’re trying to make that change a reality – setting up community stay-and-plays and pantries across London and Cardiff, calling on carers to join in the one-day strike by delegating their duties to the male volunteers charged with sweeping the nation’s floors, wiping the nation’s noses and cooking the nation’s dinners for the day.

This is no traditional strike. No one grinds the factory machines to a halt; children cannot go unfed, the elderly or infirm can’t go unwashed for the day. The problem is not the work, it is how the work is distributed. 

The strikers’ task, therefore, is to briefly reorganise the world, to actively imagine what care work might look like if it weren’t tasked to an unthanked, unseen army of the overworked, the unpaid and the underpaid; if it were shared out more equally between genders, if private problems were eased with public funding and collective help. It is no mean feat; the intricacies of orchestrating even a single day of shared community care on a shoestring budget are overwhelming. 

And the strikers can struggle to reach those who most need them – those without a community to help temporarily shoulder the burden, those with the police and social services hovering. For the strikers, this shows the urgency of the problem; the daily life of our society is chronically entangled with their work. “The women’s strike is impossible,” they claim, “that is why it is necessary”.

This is not a matter, they are keen to emphasise, of affluent mothers hiring a nanny for the day; there is little transformative about offloading your work onto the “double-shift” of another woman. Across the world, wealthier people pay their way out of the crisis by hiring care workers from a private sector overwhelmingly staffed by working-class women, migrant women and women of colour. 

Revealingly, recent anti-migration legislation was met with outrage by some well-heeled sections of society – the fear was not that this would do real damage to the people on the sharp end of border violence, but that it would deprive them of a ready stream of easily-exploitable migrant labour to cook for their children and clean their elderly parents. Who will mop up our filth? came the cry. 

The strikes offer a partial, fleeting glimpse beyond the crisis – into the better world available to us with the help of well-funded, community-owned care infrastructure, and a cultural transformation that ensures men pick up the slack. 

We sometimes trade easily in misty-eyed talk about the sacred duties of caring, the beauty of motherhood. But scratch a little, and you peel off that gloss to reveal a deep structural disdain for traditional women’s work. One striker, Esther Lutz-Davies declared that “this is not simply a fight for equal pay but one about the value of caring labour.” When we devalue care work, it is carers, children, and the vulnerable who pay the highest price.