Care work is as important as ever — carers deserve their reward

Yesterday’s debate on the disadvantaging of mostly women carers when they come to pension age goes to the heart of defining who we are and what we value.

Care work is as important as ever — carers deserve their reward

Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea seems to understand that, no doubt from listening to his working-class Limerick constituents and it is completely untrue to say, as Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald did in the Dáil on Tuesday, that he is a late convert to its importance.

O’Dea has been championing the rights of pensioners who served the State with their unpaid work in the home for years.

Speaking last year on the Government’s social welfare bill, he said the effective cut in the pension entitlement of people, mostly women, who are at pension age and spent years out of the workplace to engage in care work, failed “to recognise the valuable contribution that these women have made to society”.

The late converts to this issue are the main mouthpieces in Government and media — with the notable exception of this newspaper — which have made a concerted effort to ignore it since Joan Burton stood up in the Dáil in 2012 and defended the change on the basis that “those who pay most benefit most”.

Even the National Women’s Council has a complicated relationship with the issue of care and

perhaps that is not surprising. NWCI has certainly lobbied against the incremental impoverishment of mostly women because of the work they performed in the home.

What NWCI does not yet do is advocate for the value of care work today and for the equal right of women to mother at home or to work outside the home, depending on their individual circumstances.

In some ways the so-called marriage bar muddies the debate. In his defence of continuing the pensions anomaly for people who spent years out of the workforce engaged in care work, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe directed his venom exclusively at the marriage bar which forced some women out of the workforce in Ireland until 1973, and not at the cuts in those women’s entitlements which were introduced in 2012 by the government of which he was a part.

It was the marriage bar which was “bonkers and unbelieveable”. It was the marriage bar what done it.

The marriage bar is carefully portrayed by advocates of women in the workforce both of the left and right as an exclusively Irish attack on women led by the Catholic Church. None of this is true.

Marriage bars existed in most developed countries and the biggest inequality they engendered was that working-class women were rarely affected and had to work on through their babies because they needed the money and we needed their work.

Marriage bars were always economic tools aimed at concentrating work in the greatest number of households. Mostly brought in at the time of world recession in the 1930s they were relaxed in most places by the Second World War and stuttered to a close between the 1940s and 1960s — 1946 in the UK, 1956 in Australia, 1957 in the Netherlands, and 1964, in the US education system, for example.

Ireland’s marriage bar ended only in 1973 because Ireland was relatively poor and backward.

It does indeed seem “bonkers” from today’s perspective.

But what is not being said is that many women, in the economic and cultural context of the time, would have given up their jobs anyway.

Nowadays, in a completely different economic and cultural context, roughly one in four women goes back to work full time after the birth of their children, while 70% of children are cared for at home by a parent. Recent research shows just 17% of mothers of children under 17 wanting to work full time outside the home if cash were not an issue.

Care work is as real and as important today as it ever was. Very many women and some men see their care work as the most important contribution they make to society.

That in itself is not a problem. The problem lies only in the unwillingness of the defenders of the current economic model to reward care work; the determination of the Government of today to make women count in the workplace rather than in their homes.

This is the same issue as now affects lone parents whose entitlements were cut in Budget 2012.

Willie O’Dea has railed against these hideous cuts in the allowance paid to lone parents which government research shows have further impoverished them and their children.

That budget completed the work begun by Charlie McCreevy in 2000 when he individualised the tax system, meaning a double-income household could still be €5,000 better off than a single-income household.

There was a song and dance last week about the €100 increase in the total home carer’s tax credit, taking it from €1,100 to €1,200.

The single earner in that household would also have got a tax break of €750. But a double-income household got a tax break of €750 a year each, €1,500 for a couple.

The homemaker’s credit has still not been backdated beyond 1994, even to the date of the abolition of the marriage bar.

There is no apology about any of this from the current Fine Gael-led Government. There is no understanding that sometimes people get up early in the morning to tend to other people in their own homes.

Care has been magicked away, as by a conjuror’s trick. Care in the home does not exist or where it does exist the hope is that persistently ignoring it will make it go away.

In the case of children, the plan is to make the care go to a centre where workers and their taxes can be counted by the Government.

The rationale behind these changes is the OECD’s Babies and Bosses 2005 study of the Irish workforce which has only one aim and that is to increase the workforce with minimum immigration.

This grossly conservative document describes a woman working in the home as “a waste of human capital” and — my particular favourite — suggests limiting the payment of child benefit to women working outside the home because the universal payment makes staying home too attractive.

It is Irish women’s tragedy that many mouthpieces of the feminist movement here have bought into the Babies and Bosses analysis.

What drives me bonkers about this ghastly determination is that it completely overlooks the priorities of women themselves and it is certainly “unbelievable” that anyone could call that feminism.

The biggest question now is not how the Government will reimburse today’s pensioners who spent time working the home — it is whether they will continue to impoverish the carers of today and tomorrow.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up