This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 17, 2024 – June 23, 202

By Norma Mansor, Lee Min Hui and Calvin Cheng / The Edge Malaysia

Malaysia is ageing at a pace far quicker than many other countries have in the past. By 2040, the country is set to see a threefold increase in the old age dependency ratio. This means that for every working age Malaysian adult, there will be three elderly people needing support. Coupled with rising life expectancies and evolving family structures, these shifts will propel an unprecedented surge in care demand in the coming decade.

This signals an urgent need to change how we see care. As a nation, we need to redefine care as a collective responsibility rather than just a women’s or welfare concern. We need to recognise that meeting our growing care needs represents a central development priority — one that Malaysia can ill-afford to abandon as it chases its twin goals of sustainable development and economic prosperity. The task for Malaysia is to invest in the care economy and make it both inclusive and responsive to the care needs of families across the country.

Grounded in these values, the care economy — sometimes termed the “purple economy” — draws attention to the care work that is performed invisibly within the home and aims to value both paid and unpaid care work as labour, essential not only to the well-being of individuals but to the functioning of any economy.

This is a crucial response to a problem plaguing nearly every society: a global survey based on time-use data from 64 countries representing 67% of the world’s working age population, revealed that a staggering 16.4 billion hours are devoted daily to unpaid care work. This is equivalent to two billion people working eight hours a day without compensation. The value of unpaid care work constitutes 9% of global gross domestic product, with women’s contribution at around 6.6% of GDP compared with men’s at 2.4%.

Case for care

From child to elderly care, care work in Malaysia is primarily undertaken informally by families — meaning that it often goes unpaid — with the bulk of the burden traditionally falling on women and girls. This reliance on informal care is unsustainable in the context of a rapidly ageing society.

Already, Malaysian women are suffering the brunt of unpaid care work. In 2022, there were more than three million people outside the labour force because of family and care obligations, 98% of whom were women. This translates into Malaysian women having less time for paid employment, education and leisure — impacting not only their well-being and long-term economic outcomes but also undercutting the country’s economic potential.

In fact, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia’s latest policy paper on “Building a cradle-to-grave care economy” projects that if the unpaid care work produced in Malaysian homes each day were valued in national GDP figures, it would generate about RM379 billion. That would make unpaid care work account for a fifth of the services sector, making it the largest standalone sector after manufacturing.

Further, removing the constraints of care work would enhance gender equality. It could enable women outside the labour force greater choice to engage in paid employment. In this way, investing in the care economy not only unlocks opportunities for sustainable growth but also fosters employment and establishes the foundations for long-term economic resilience.

Vision for future of care

To bridge this gap equitably, Malaysia needs a cradle-to-grave care economy which recognises that care lies on a spectrum of needs, spanning child to elderly care. This means adopting a life­cycle approach to care by acknowledging that people face varying risks and needs across their lifetime and offer support across these stages.

The ideal end goal is for an equitable and inclusive care economy. As such, care work should no longer be reduced to a commodity or a family obligation — but established as a public good that generates benefits beyond the immediate care recipient, with impacts that extend into broader society and the future. This requires ensuring that there is a baseline of care support that is broadly accessible to all, especially vulnerable groups.

In essence, public investment in the care economy is needed urgently, not least because it has the potential to generate thousands of care-related jobs annually. To this end, public spending on the care economy should be regarded not merely as a fiscal expenditure but as a strategic investment.

Our primary policy recommendations to guide public investment in the care economy involve considering care as a basic right and integrating it into the social protection framework as well as establishing regulatory frameworks and legislative foundations.

The care economy will also need to be met with effective governance. In line with the recognition of care as a strategic issue, it is important that the care economy be approached as a multisectoral issue — with responsibility mainstreamed across several ministries rather than limiting it to the purview of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD). This should include the Ministry of Economy to value the contribution of care to national GDP and act as the central planning agency, compelling other agencies to act; Ministry of Human Resources to oversee skills training of care workers; Ministry of Health to integrate health and care systems; and Ministry of Education, where early childcare and education is concerned. MWFCD remains to ensure that policies are gender-sensitive and meet the needs of vulnerable groups.

Beyond that, we need to professionalise the care workforce to ensure workers receive professional training and qualifications alongside entitlement to social security, thus aligning them with other professional occupations. This could attract more young Malaysians to seek employment in this sector while improving the quality of care. On this front, a key move would be to secure the Social Work Profession Bill — slated to be tabled this year after delays since the 2010s. By recognising and regulating social workers — of which care workers are a subset — the bill would mark an important first step towards building a viable cradle-to-grave care economy. Building off this foundation, a similar act aimed at professionalising care workers would extend these benefits to all forms of care workers across the spectrum of services.

A cradle-to-grave care economy is a gargantuan task requiring widespread reforms and whole-of-government efforts. Yet, the cost of inaction might be larger. By sitting on our hands, we risk not only undermining the well-being of families across the country but also failing to harness the full potential of our collective human capital. After all, investing in the care economy is not just a social imperative but a strategic necessity for Malaysia’s future.

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