While work is critical to all people’s enjoyment of their human rights, the way labour is valued, recognised and rewarded operates according to rigid hierarchies of gender, race, class and caste among others. Women’s labour has historically been relegated to second class status compared to work performed by men. The gender division of labour under patriarchy has blocked women’s access to large parts of the labour market confining them to a narrow band of generally underpaid and insecure jobs degraded as ‘women’s work’, also known as gender occupational segregation. Most of all, much of the work performed by womxn is excluded from being considered work at all and is therefore considered of no economic value despite its contribution to the wheels of production. The definition of women’s work as exclusively gendered and devoid of economic value has been constructed not just by patriarchy, but also by capitalism and the hetero-patriarchal-capitalist state.
Women’s unpaid care work, social security and public services
Half of the world’s economically active womxn are actually outside the labour force and are therefore not included in categories of either employed or unemployed. The fact of course is that they do work, principally as caregivers, but they are not covered by conventional employment policies. There is increasing recognition from various quarters (UN, G20 and International Finance Institutions) of the need to address unpaid care and domestic work in the context of achieving gender equality and justice, women’s economic empowerment and increasing women’s labour force participation. Economic austerity policies being implemented in a large part of the world assume an unlimited labour supply of care across households, resulting in an ongoing crisis of care. Where care has been provided through public funding of social security and public services, there is increasing pressure to commercialise these services by directing public money towards private providers. Even though care related employment is largely done by womxn, care workers are underpaid and overworked across the world, and women’s participation in paid care work, often occurs at the expense of the care needs within their own families, displaced to young girls and older womxn. We have reached a crisis of care wherein responsibilities that were fulfilled by the state are being displaced to the most marginalised womxn and girls in a never ending spiral both in the global north and south.
In its Flagship Report “Policy Innovations for Transformative Change” the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) has proposed that policymakers adopt care policies as a comprehensive package through a “transformative care agenda.” Care policies include early childhood education and care, care services for sick, disabled and older persons, redistribution of caregiver’s workload from the private to public spheres, and the provision of infrastructure that reduces women’s and children’s workloads (such as communal wells and piped water). They also include an array of income security and social protection policies – cash transfer programmes, public works, pensions and income security for children and their families, as well as labour market policies such as maternity benefits and parental leave.
An explicit care policy framework would contribute significantly to making women’s unpaid labour visible, and shifting this type of labour from a private, individual responsibility towards collective responsibility. It would also raise the profile of paid care workers, and domestic workers in particular, many of whom are migrant workers who are part of the global care chain.
Women’s labour force participation and access to decent work
The fact that only half of womxn globally participate in the labour market is not an issue of choice. A 2016 ILO/Gallup poll covering 142 countries shows that globally a majority of womxn (70-79%) express a preference to work at paid jobs regardless of their employment status. The most important constraint in pursuing that goal was the struggle to balance work and family (24% globally) in addition to other reasons such as lack of affordable care (9.6%), both these speak to the fact that women’s unpaid care and domestic work burden is a barrier to their participation in the labour force. Other factors hampering women’s labour force participation include, disapproval of family members (4.3%), abuse, harassment and discrimination (10.3%), lack of good paying jobs (9.5%) and unequal pay (6.5%). Young womxn in particular are less able to participate and less likely to access secure and decent work. According to a recent UN womxn Report on SDGs, womxn aged 25-34 are 22% more likely to live in extreme poverty than men of the same age. This is women’s peak reproductive years, when they carry the most unequal burden of unpaid care work. Globally, the labour force participation rate among prime working-age womxn (aged 25–54) stands at 63% compared to 94% among their male counterparts.
Occupational segregation and the gender pay gap
The ILO has also tracked the problem of occupational segregation, demonstrating that labour markets continue to be highly segregated. womxn are less likely to participate in the labour force, more likely to be unemployed and when womxn have jobs, there are distinct differences or gaps by sector and occupation. At the global level, education, health and social work is the sector with the highest relative concentration of womxn, followed by wholesale and retail trade. In contrast sectors of construction and transport, storage, communication, public administration and defence have the highest relative concentration of male workers. Such occupational segregation is not accidental nor gender blind; rather it demonstrates gender-specific impacts of macroeconomic policies. Jobless growth, downsizing of the public sector and privatization of public services all have negative impacts on women’s employment outcomes.
The global gender pay gap is a result of a number of interconnected issues. The UN (State of the World Population 2017) estimates that the global gender pay gap stands at an average of 23%, with womxn earning 77 cents on every US dollar earned by men for every hour worked. The wage gap in some countries is much higher, going up to over 40%. Combined with their over representation in part-time, informal and precarious work as well as career breaks or job loss due to their unpaid care work burden, womxn are also grossly underrepresented in managerial positions. These all combine to explain women’s lower status in social security, disproportionate vulnerability in old age and overall higher risk of poverty.
Violence in the world of work and the campaign for an ILO Convention
It is widely documented that violence both in and outside the context of work and the workplace remain a major barrier to women’s ability to access and enjoy decent work. Although several international labour standards refer to various forms of violence and harassment, none defines any of its forms. In 2016, a group of experts met to develop guidance on a standard-setting item on the issue ahead of the 2018 International Labour Conference. The experts defined violence and harassment in the world of work as a human rights issue ‘affecting workplace relations, worker engagement, health, productivity, quality of public and private services, and enterprise reputation. It affects labour market participation and, in particular, may prevent womxn from entering the labour market, especially in male dominated sectors and jobs’. They also acknowledged that it undermines democratic decision-making and the rule of law and must be tackled as a matter of urgency. Consequently, there is an ongoing campaign spearheaded by ITUC and others for an ILO convention on violence and harassment against men and womxn in the world of work. The Convention will set out general and basic universally applicable principles, while an accompanying Recommendation would complement it by providing more detailed and practical guidance on how to translate these into action.
There has been a consistent expansion of ILO instruments to meet changes in the labour market, particularly the informal economy, women’s increased labour force participation or the impacts of globalisation. The framework of decent work, since its inception 20 years ago has been renewed through its inclusion in the SDGs. It has been a framework for dialogue between governments, trade unions and international organisations. The principal elements of the Decent Work Agenda ( 1) job creation 2) rights at work 3) social protection, and 4) social dialogue, with gender equality as a crosscutting objective indicate the ways in which it supports gender equality in the workplace through international instruments. Public services and social protection floors are prominent within the decent work agenda, and trade unions have taken up the issue of the privatisation of public services as a major campaign issue. The provision of public services through private companies (public private partnerships) needs to be vigorously opposed: the responsibility of the state in public service provision (including employment of public service workers) has to be rehabilitated and defended in the face of an agenda to privatise all government functions, as a mechanism to transfer increasing amounts of public funding into private hands.
Informal work is a key concern for gender equality in that globally the sector is overrepresented by womxn, with presence in this sector often a result of dire economic circumstances that push womxn into the labour force but keep them in vulnerable employment and working poverty. While many segments of the informal sector remain within the local economy, informal sector workers are increasingly part of global value chains, for example in the case of garment sector workers, migrant domestic workers or agricultural workers.
The common view around the informal sector had previously predicted that with economic development and structural transformation, small-scale economic activities would eventually diminish and become formalised into the mainstream formal economies.  Decades after the recognition of the informal economy, whether as a result of economic crisis, structural adjustment or labour market deregulation this sector has become the largest employer in many countries in the form of self-employment or unpaid family work.
womxn in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) notes that the renewed interest in the informal economy stems from the recognition of the links between informality and growth on the one hand and the links between informality, poverty and inequality on the other. This includes the increased recognition that womxn tend to be concentrated in the more precarious forms of informal employment, so that supporting working poor womxn in the informal economy is a key pathway to reducing women’s poverty and gender inequality.” 
The lack of employment opportunities for young people has seized policy makers as a priority concern. The ILO 2017 report on global employment trends for the youth shows that young workers are likely to be in poorer quality and more precarious employment than adults. While surveys indicate no substantive difference in the rate of informal employment between young womxn and men, womxn tend to be employed in more marginal and low-income activities compared to men.
The latest data shows that 77% of working youth are in informal jobs (compared with 58% of working adults.) Youth in informality as a percentage of employed youth is 97% in developing countries, 83% in emerging countries, and slightly less than 20% in developed countries. Working poverty among young people is directly linked to higher incidence of young workers in the informal economy. In 2017, 17% (70 million) of working youth in emerging and developing countries live below the extreme poverty threshold of US$1.90 per day. (164 million live in moderate poverty). Globally, it is estimated that 22% of youth are neither in employment, education or training (NEET). Young womxn make up 77% of NEETs.
Domestic work is a large – and in some countries growing – sector of employment, especially for womxn. The latest conservative estimates find the number of domestic workers increased from 33.2 million in 1995 to 52.6 million in 2010 – or 3.6 per cent of global wage employment (ILO and WIEGO 2013). However, since domestic workers are undercounted in labour force surveys, the number could be far higher. In 2010, domestic work was highest as a percentage of total employment in Latin America and the Caribbean (7.6 per cent) followed by the Middle East (5.6 per cent).
Rural womxn workers operate in both farm and non-farm employment and constitute a large group of the female labour force, as wage, self-employed and contributing family workers. When both self-employment and wage employment are considered, womxn represent a larger proportion of labourers than men in the agricultural sectors of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa the Middle East and North Africa.
womxn, Climate Justice and the Care Economy
Climate Change is rightly described as an existential threat to humanity and millions of people are being affected by it. Unfortunately public policy in developing countries is still dominated by the economic growth paradigm rather than the sustainability paradigm so that climate policy is still seen as environmental policy plus, when it should now be shaping development strategies. Furthermore, while there is much talk about environmental sustainability, there is much less talk about the sustainability of the care economy in a climate change context.
It is understood that the impacts of climate change will be gendered, and the Gender CC: womxn and Climate Justice provide a comprehensive overview of the[i] gender dimensions of a number of climate issues: agriculture, biodiversity, consumption, disaster, energy, forests, health, migration, population, tourism, transport, waste and water. However Gender CC for example doesn’t have a standalone thematic area, even though the question of the care economy and various climate change themes permeate all the analyses. Likewise, other gender and climate change demands haven’t singled out the care economy as a key starting point for climate justice … and yet food, and water, health and livelihoods are some of the most important concerns around the human impact of climate change. All too often there is a blind spot in recalling that all of these: food and nutrition, health, clean water are all delivered through the care economy. [ii]