This piece is part of an in-depth series on Women at Work. For regular updates on gender issues ‘like’ our Facebook Page and sign up to The Gender Agenda weekly email digest.

The world is at risk of further economic instability and solutions lie in the fundamental confidence that comes with decent work. When working men and women have secure jobs with living wages and social protection they can invest in the economy at levels which will increase demand and help overcome the twin challenges of ageing populations and economic stagnation.

A groundbreaking new study, Investing in the Care Economy – A Pathway to Growth, for the ITUC shows how public investment in paid care jobs provides women with independence to find and keep jobs in other sectors, or contributes to family income and economic growth when they are paid for the work they disproportionately do.

One in two working families have been hit by the loss of jobs or reduction of working hours. Young women in particular are impacted. More than half the world’s population say their incomes have fallen behind the cost of living. Having a job no longer guarantees enough to meet basic needs, and women are the majority of the working poor.

“Women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid care”

The G20 leaders determined a target to increase women's participation by 25%. This can only be achieved when the care sector is properly funded. There is no doubt that the participation of women in the workforce is a serious productivity boost but to enable this ambition there must be investment in care; child care, aged care, disability care, health and education which are essential social support structures to enable women to work.

Investment in care makes sense. It makes economic sense, it builds secure communities and contributes to greater gender equality.

Globally, women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid care work, including domestic or household tasks, as well as care for people at home and in the community. When women are expected to bear the burden of unpaid work, everyone loses.

The cost of not caring

Labour market participation rates for women are stagnating and equal payment is for many an elusive ambition.

In countries where women spend an average of five hours a day on unpaid care activities, 50% of women in the working age-population are active, i.e. employed or looking for a job. However, in countries where women spend three hours a day on unpaid care work, 60% of women are active in the labour force. A decrease in women’s unpaid care work is therefore related to a ten percentage point increase in women’s labour force participation rates.

With the austerity measures visited on many countries as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, the resulting cuts in services have contributed to the increase in unpaid care. And as the economic slump hits poor and emerging economies, the increase in both unpaid and informal work is a result of the privatization of care within families.

Care work contributes enormously to the well-being of our societies and to the sustainability of our economies.

However, the time and opportunity costs of unpaid care work, as well as the sheer physical demands, can have a severe and negative impact on women’s well-being and economic independence by limiting women’s access to paid employment.

Austerity measures, in particular cuts to investment in public services, have had the impact of deepening existing gender gaps in labour markets, from the gender pay and pension gap, pregnancy discrimination, occupational segregation to insecure or informal working conditions as women struggle to balance income generating activities with unpaid care work.

The ILO and others calculate that by 2020 seventy-nine per cent of the world’s population will have been affected by austerity measures: 83 per cent living in developing countries and 61 per cent in industrialised countries

With the provision of care increasingly seen as a private and individual responsibility, rather than a collective responsibility to be subsidized through fair and progressive taxation systems. When societies’ needs for care are met privately, it is almost exclusively women’s work. Where families can pay for care, it increasingly is still within the home.

Workers in the care sector, especially women, are often still trapped in low paid and insecure jobs. Validating the work of carers, through decent work, must be part of the package.

Millions of women are migrating every year either within their own country or across borders to take up a job as care or domestic workers. Because the work of these women is often not valued, many face exploitation, non-payment of wages and abuse. Investing in care would offer opportunities to defend their rights and/or enhance their access to decent work.

From crisis to opportunity

The modeling for the ITUC by the Women's Budget Group, released in the new study Investing in the Care Economy – A Pathway to Growth showed an investment of 2% in to social infrastructure or the care sector would increase employment by up to 6% in some countries with a baseline of at least 2.4% in others with between 58% and 79% of jobs being taken by women. Furthermore, the multiplier effect of these jobs would also increase overall men's employment by between 1.4% and 4% in different countries.

The evidence in the report shows that investment of 2% of GDP in just 7 countries would create over 21 million jobs.

The hallmarks of dignified societies inclusive societies include public education, affordable health care, child protection, child care, aged care, maternity protection, support for the disabled, minimum wages on which people can live and active labour market programmes.

Caring is what makes us human. Investment in the care economy, creating decent jobs with collective bargaining, is good for women, good for men and good for our economies.