Caring - exploitation or choice?

A recent animation funded by the Gates Foundation highlighted the ‘exploitation’ of carers across the world.

Exploitation in this case means unpaid labour that is ignored by policy makers but clearly benefits industry and governments. Rightly pointing out that the burden of this work falls disproportionately on women, who are 10 times more likely than men to provide unpaid care, the piece offers the view that anyone voluntarily caring for another person, who is not sufficiently remunerated for the activity or supported by Government policy decisions, is being exploited. 

It is interesting to consider this in relation to carers in the UK. Although rarely expressed in these terms, there is a level of anger among carers of both sexes that hints at a sense of exploitation.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers three definitions of exploitation: the first is to make full use of and derive benefit from. This seems to chime with current Government policy. The message is clear: ‘We know there is a problem, but the State cannot provide.’

The second definition offered by OED: to make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand. The situation here is a sense of obligation, love or commitment to the person being cared for. The sense of exploitation comes from the motivation this provides to undertake complicated and arduous work for little or no financial reward.

The third definition offered by the OED: to benefit unfairly from the work of (someone), typically by overworking or underpaying. This  highlights the hidden benefits to society from a carer’s role. When someone cares for a family member it means there is less call on the State’s resources.  If we consider the welfare of its vulnerable citizens to be the responsibility of the State, exploitation seems embedded in the structure of caring for a family member.

But this does not chime with the experience of carers. We have more than 150 carers involved with our Carers Together  project and none of them say they feel  ‘exploited'. But they do express  anger, largely with Government, about the lack of support they receive in their role. Equally when asked ‘Why did you become a carer?’ large numbers respond with: ‘I had no choice". The focus of the anger and the sense of injustice suggests that they do not believe the State is honouring its obligations to the more vulnerable members of society.

Perhaps the reason carers do not claim to be exploited is that they are primarily motivated by love for the person they are caring for. It is in this context our mentoring takes place. Navigating degrees of willingness, obligation, poverty and exhaustion are part of the mentoring task and it is by finding a balance - between acknowledging the way in which our carers are exploited, and that in some way they freely choose their situation and must work to make the best of it - that our mentors succeed. 

TimeBank's Carers Together project offers face-to-face and online mentoring to carers. It aims to reduce social isolation, improve emotional well-being and help carers cope with the stress and strains of caring. If you’d like more information, take a look at www.timebank.org.uk/carers-togetheror email Stephen at StephenR@timebank.org.uk