Female care work: a blind spot in the precarity debate

“Precarity has a gender: it’s female” – this was the title of this year’s FSPC Women’s Conference. The church and its diaconal institutions must take a stand for the recognition of female care work, delegates demanded on October 29 in Berne.

Precarity means a life lived in uncertainty and constant fear of slipping into poverty. Under the title “Precarity has a gender: it’s female” the Women’s Conference of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches met this Monday in Berne to discuss the fact that it is mainly women who are facing fears of social decline and poverty.

The classic definition of precarity mostly focuses on gainful employment, or, more precisely, “on the ideal of the male breadwinner,” Michèle Amacker explained in her presentation. Amacker, who works at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Gender Studies at Berne University, demanded the inclusion of previously ignored “blind spots in the precarity debate.” Amacker drew attention to private care work: in 80 percent of cases, it is unpaid work, and two thirds of it is performed by women.

“The social security system is also geared towards gainful employment,” Amacker added, emphasizing the need for significant reforms in this sector: necessary measures include doubling the allowance for helpless persons who are cared for at home and improved pension assurance for low-income and part-time workers.

The perspective of church and diaconal work on the precarity debate centers on the principle of “participation,” FSPC representative Simon Hofstetter explained: “Nobody should be excluded from the basic possibilities of living.”

The Christian idea of participation rejects the “absolutization of gainful employment;” it demands equal treatment and turns against any form of discrimination, Hofstetter pointed out, adding that the demand for just wages is as much a part of the principle of Christian participation as the demand for a minimum of job and income security. “Care work is done in many places, but none of them are acknowledged or appreciated by society,” Hofstetter explained, stressing the importance of fostering this acknowledgement and appreciation.

Several workshops provided the opportunity to advance and develop the discussion. Participants stated that the church should engender a “culture of welcoming and hospitality,” e.g. by providing rooms for people in precarious living situations.

They also pointed out that churches should review the situation of their own employees regarding signs of precarization. Cleaning staff, catechists, organists and vergers can be affected if they are not eligible for pension insurance due to too-low pensions. Precarious working conditions can even be found in the parish office, e.g. if low starting salaries and part-time pensions coincide with job uncertainty and unregulated working hours.