Khazanah Research: Time to subsidise care for kids and the elderly, as country’s burden rises

KRI’s study found only two per cent of Malaysians have access to formal private care providers, while most 95 per cent of households rely on the informal sector. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli
KRI’s study found only two per cent of Malaysians have access to formal private care providers, while most 95 per cent of households rely on the informal sector. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 4 — Malaysia faces a rising care burden that, if failed to be dealt with, could take a heavy toll on the economy, drain resources, and widen gender disparity both at home and the workplace, a study by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) found.

The findings of its Time to Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey was released yesterday and is the first in-depth look into problems confronting child care and its broader implications particularly on gender inequality, an issue that has long dogged policymakers.

As life expectancy of the population becomes longer and household size shrinks, KRI said care work has become a pressing national issue as the burden of tending to the elderly and raising a family increases but without a corresponding growth in the care economy.

“An ageing demographic coupled with growing childcare needs would mean that the care burden from both ends of Malaysia’s population spectrum will continue to rise,” the think tank said.

“Unpaid care work also widens gender inequalities in the labour market as it has an outsized role in women’s decision to opt out of the workforce.”

Malaysia’s life expectancy is now 16 per cent higher than in 1970, while the total fertility rate has dropped by 66.7 per cent.

Still, children outnumber the elderly by five times as of 2018. Which means the problem of child care is still very much a central issue.

How care burden is affecting women

KRI notes that both ends of the age spectrum add on to Malaysia’s care burden in different ways, and that labour market dynamics play a crucial role in determining society’s care burden.

Increasing labour force participation without a commensurating growth in formal care means the burden of raising children will fall mostly on those who must work and care at the same time, or “disproportionately” to those outside the labour force.

And most of the caregiving population outside the labour force is still predominantly women. In 2018, women comprised 76.2 per cent of those with 23.8 per cent for men.

Although the proportion of men increased by 14.4 per cent and the women decreased 2.1 per cent between 2010 and 2018, women still shoulder the care burden among those outside the labour disproportionately, the study found.

This has implications on gender parity in the workplace. The number of women at work remains far behind men even as it has improved over the years; KRI suggested unpaid care work contributes significantly to these patterns.

“Our hypothesis is grounded in the Labour Force Survey that shows that the majority of women in Malaysia cited housework and family responsibilities as the reason for not joining the labour force,” the study said.

“This is a lost opportunity because more economic participation by women can boost the national economy, mitigate the impact of an ageing labour force and foster innovation.”

The study found that while prime-age men have recorded almost full participation in 2018, women’s participation in the workforce peaked at between ages 25 and 29 and decreased gradually for each subsequent age group.

Official data cited by the report also showed that women on average worked fewer hours per week than men, and this gap also increased with age.

The gender gap in hours worked was largest for those aged 50–54 in 2018, with women working on average 3.8 hours less than men.

“Women were not only participating less in the labour force after ages 25–29 but also working fewer hours than men, reinforcing the non-binary way women balance work and care,” the report said.

“Furthermore, women opted for jobs that gave them more flexibility, proxied by the large increase in workers in both formal and informal work. This was at the expense of job security, income stability and social protection.”

This phenomenon is known as the “double-burden”, in which women are forced to juggle their careers and caring by shouldering more responsibility even as they work almost the same hours as men in paid jobs.

KRI said the burden is made worse by the fact that women often have to multitask to achieve care goals, which further increases their “time poverty.”

“Time poverty” is a concept whereby time is assigned an economic value similar to that of work. Feminists use the term to define the sort of unpaid work women do that is just as essential to the economy as a full-time job, but is undervalued.

In a patriarchal society, work like cooking, child caring, grocery shopping are often chucked aside as mere “chores” even as they form a crucial component to economic productivity.

Tackling the burden head-on

Both past and current administrations have sought to tackle the problem but the solution often does not go beyond pushing for more childcare centres.

The current Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, for example, has encouraged all public services to provide nurseries for working parents, but this remains mere “encouragement” and not policy.

This guideline is also limited to the public services, leaving the private sector free of any obligation to provide childcare for their employees. As a result, parents have no options but to employ private formal or informal care providers, which tends to be unaffordable in the former case.

KRI’s study found only two per cent of Malaysians have access to formal private care providers, while most 95 per cent of households rely on the informal sector.

Informal care providers, while convenient and cheap, are often unregulated and associated with poor quality.

The think tank said some households in Kuala Lumpur, where the time use study (TUS) was held, pay as much as 15 per cent of their total income for childcare alone.

The findings of the TUS, which surveyed participants based on their time-use habits to draw analysis on how much time was spent on care work, is meant to offer a concrete base for the right policy response to the care conundrum.

One of the study’s recommendations for solutions is subsidies to stimulate demand for childcare, as part of efforts to recognise care work as a productive component of the economy.  

The researchers argued this would create more jobs, higher rate of women at work and less gender gap. A simulation held found the percentage of women working full time would increase to 63 per cent within five years and employ as many as 16,000 people in the care sector, KRI said.

“Jobs for teachers and child minders, higher economic growth, more women in the workforce and less gender inequality,” KRI said.

“Childcare allowances would help make these services affordable for parents and more viable for providers.”

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