Who cares? Ai-jen Poo on building collective care solutions

Ai-jen Poo leads a salon discussion with Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity (below)

Ai-jen Poo leads a salon discussion with Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity (below)

Why, when care work is so important to us all, do we care so little for those who care for us? In an Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity public event at LSE, acclaimed US labour organiser Ai-jen Poo joined Professor Beverley Skeggs to discuss today’s landscape of low-status, badly paid jobs; “care deserts” and “care sandwiches”; scarce, low-quality and largely for-profit provision; a gendered, classed and racialised framing of the work and workers; and a lack of policies and political will adequate to the challenge – and to outline strategies for a fairer, more effective care economy of the future.

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“If we all need it, and especially if our children and our elderly need it, and we’re going to need it, why do we disregard care?” asked Skeggs, who convenes the Global Care Chains research theme at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. “I just can’t get my head around the fact that people want to pay people $5 an hour to look after the dearest people in their life.”

However, the crisis in care is “actually a huge opportunity in many ways”, suggested Poo, director of the 200,000-member, 30-city-strong National Domestic Workers’ Association in the US, a country in which “the legacy of slavery has profoundly shaped this industry from the beginning”.

“I think everyone agrees that our existing care infrastructure is insufficient and unsustainable. We have the opportunity of generations to rethink a key part of our society that can unlock so much potential and growth. Conversations about the future of work focus on how automation and artificial intelligence will displace large segments of our workforce, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. But care jobs cannot be outsourced or automated any time soon; we are going to need human beings providing care for our loved ones. I know I want that for the people that I love and who raised me.”

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Poo added: “We also want those human beings to be able to take care of their own families. How do we make those jobs really good jobs? Some economists predict that by 2030 care jobs will be the largest occupation in the US workforce… and right now they’re completely unsustainable: high rates of turnover, tons of burnout. And we end up losing some of our very best caregivers to other low-wage service jobs, like fast food and retail, when we have this huge [care] labour shortage.”

What needs to change? “I think most issues that are fundamental to women’s lives have been side-lined and treated as special interest or soft issues as opposed to national priorities, and that has to change. We have culturally seen care as a personal burden to be managed and figured out on our own.” Solving it, Poo said, will require “a cultural shift, and we have a really rare opportunity now to make it. It is an organising challenge… which is why we’ve built this movement.”

In the 20 June LSE public event and a salon-style discussion with Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity afterward, Poo highlighted both old and new approaches to campaigning in bringing change. Citing NDWA’s lobbying work in regional and national US labour law reform, the ongoing value of its traditional one-to-one outreach, and the use of digital platforms to organise, inform and serve workers (including its portable benefits platform Myalia.org that “allows a disaggregated workforce to get access to benefits that most of us take for granted”), Poo’s position is that just as care touches us all, so too will “this urgent social issue require a collective solution”.


Learn more:
National Domestic Workers Alliance: www.domesticworkers.org and @DomesticWorkers

Watch/listen to this event:
VIDEO: Caring Forward: The Global Care Economy and its Future - Ai-jen Poo in conversation with Professor Beverley Skeggs, LSE, 20 June 2019
AUDIO: Caring Forward: The Global Care Economy and its Future - Ai-jen Poo in conversation with Professor Beverley Skeggs, LSE, 20 June 2019