Carework Network Summit in Costa Rica

Jocelyn Olcott
3 September 2023

For the first time since the Covid-19 lockdown, the Carework Network convened an in-person summit — this time with a fully bilingual gathering of academics, activists, and policymakers in San José, Costa Rica.

In the months while we’ve been working out the technical details of migrating the Care Talk blog from UMass to this site, I’ve been eager to write here about the Carework Network’s third global summit, which took place at the University of Costa Rica in early June. 

The UCR campus offered an ideal setting for the gathering — pura vida, indeed!  In contrast to many over-landscaped, carefully manicured US university campuses, UCR exhibits Costa Rica’s famous attention to ecological care and sustainability.  The route from the Ave del Paraíso hotel to the conference site wound through lush greenery, passing over creeks and past a butterfly sanctuary.  The airy, open conference venue was the opposite of the windowless hotel convention centers that I’ve come to associate with professional conferences.

The organizers delivered on the promise of a global summit.  

On the global:  Participants came from every continent, albeit with a stronger presence from the Americas. All events included simultaneous translation between Spanish and English.  The plenary sessions included keynotes by the sociologist Rhacel Salazar Parreñas on the “unfree market of carework” and the Guatemalan Mayan feminist activist Lorena Kab’nal (Tzk´at) on buen vivir and the interdependence of all living organisms as well as a panel on collectivizing carework, featuring Crystal Simeoni (Director of NAWI: Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective in Kenya), Alejandra Mora Mora (Executive Secretary of the Interamerican Commission of Women), and Julie Kashen (Director for Women’s Economic Justice at the Century Foundation).  Bonus track:  over lunch, Crystal Simeoni shared with me this breathtaking publication her organization produced.)

On the summit:  the event brought together activists, academics, professionals from intergovernmental organizations.  It reminded me a bit of a cross between an NGO forum at a UN conference and an Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe — encounters across differences in experiences, epistemologies, and temporalities.  Indigenous cosmovisions mixed in with quantitative sociology.  The compressed, sped-up time of activism meeting the administrative time of UN agencies.  The immediacy of domestic-worker organizing drawing on the arm’s-length reflections of academic research. 

If a summit may be known by those it honors, the awards ceremony was telling.  Public engagement awards went to the podcast The Shape of Care and El Colectivo 506 for its issue on Las Titas, with honorable mentions to the Care Aesthetics Research Exploration (CARE) project and The Care Lab. Care in Action awards went to the Association of Costa Rican Domestic Workers (ASTRADOMES) The Founder’s Award went to the indefatigable Mignon Duffy, whose scholarship is probably familiar to most readers of this blog.  What may be less apparent is her capacity to steer a horizontally organized feminist collective to sustain a network over two decades and produce a series of global summits.

For academic readers who may suffer the occasional (more than occasional?) pang of irrelevance, the Carework Network summit offered a valuable reminder of how our research gets picked up in non-academic social-movement and policymaking circles.  Empirical findings, conceptual frameworks, and specialized terminology showed up in presentations by activists and ILO representatives.

All the sessions I attended included a stimulating mix of perspectives. I won’t be able to cover everything in the space of a blog post, not least because I couldn’t attend simultaneous sessions, but perhaps others who attended can add their experiences in the comments. (Also, lots of great posts on the socials.)  But here are a few things that struck me:

• The ILO’s Convention 189 has made a significant difference on the ground, particularly for domestic workers trying to unionize or otherwise organize.  Anju Paul , Jiang Haolie and Cynthia Chen, in their work on a Global Care Policy Index, have shown how C189 offers a metric for governments’ de jure commitment to careworkers’ rights, but I was surprised to see its de facto impact.  Activists are well-versed in its protections and leverage state commitments to secure improved wages and working conditions.  Perhaps this impact results from the fact that, as Eileen Boris and Jennifer Fish have shown, activists were exceptionally involved in the drafting of C189.

• A lot of the research on carework echoes the dependency theorists of the 1970s, as Arlie Hochschild & Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in their introduction to Global Women.  In the presentations and discussion in Costa Rica, there was a similar attention to extraction of value and the undervaluation of what we might see as the primary commodities of care — all that time, attention, labor, and expertise that careworkers bring to bear.  Unlike the Marxist dependista paradigm, there was more attention to ecological interdependence, indigenous and decolonial practices, and the inadequacies of the developmentalist investment model and market solutions.

• Probably unsurprising to readers of this blog, the research on time use continues to make critical contributions, particularly in recognizing the value of unpaid carework.  Panels included methodological discussions about various classification systems — perhaps because of the strong Latin American presence, the Clasificación Mexicana seemed to be the most widely used.

• I’m not ready to call us post-neoliberal just yet, but there was a lot of attention to the ways that commodification has exacerbated the care crisis — by requiring a low-wage labor market for dependent care, by medicalizing phenomena such as loneliness, by fantasizing that technology will spare us from environmental collapse.  Antiwork politics, including ideas such as childcare credits and universal basic income, received attention as possible antidotes. Perhaps because this summit marked, for many of us in the northern hemisphere, the beginning of summer break, or perhaps because it was the first large in-person event many of us had attended since the Covid-19 lockdowns started, the Costa Rica summit also just had a relaxed, joyful atmosphere.  The Carework Network has been sustained for nearly a quarter century by a dedicated group of researchers, making the summit a mix of a reunion of old comrades with the energy of newcomers such as myself.  I’m hooked — I can’t wait for the next one

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One comment on "Carework Network Summit in Costa Rica"

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    Riikka Prattes

    It was such a pleasurable summit indeed! Listening to Indigenous folks coming through with valuable insights was the most joyous for me. Besides the keynote by Lorena Kab’nal that you mention in your post, I want to highlight the papers by Aaniyah Martin on hydro-commons in Camissa (Cape Town) and Ellie Tapsell, who spoke about Tikanga Māori and its connections to care theory in the context of Aotearoa/NZ. Such important contributions! Loved it <3

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