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April 30, 2024

The commodification of care

This blog post is the latest in our series showcasing work being done across our Research Fellow network. For more information about becoming an IFOW Research Fellow, please do get in touch.

Future of work debates are often dominated by concerns associated with the profound impact of technology on our economic systems and labour markets. For instance, much attention has been paid to the potential consequences of automation with some speculation about significant worker displacement. Similarly, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the implications of remote and hybrid work modes on productivity, efficacy, and even city planning, have been spotlighted. As a feminist academic, however, my research approaches the relationship between work and technology through the lens of gender to explore sectors like care work, which are often obscured or neglected within these broader debates.

It is some of these changing relationships between care work, gender and technological transformation that I want to outline here.

Caring and affective labour are commonly associated with healthcare and service industries where human interaction and communication are embedded within the work, producing intangible feelings of "ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion” (Hardt, 1999: 96). In the mainstream zeitgeist, femininity and affective labour are irrevocably linked. In practice, this means women often perform (low or unpaid) affective labour because they are believed to be naturally adept at it.

The market for waged care work - and its evolving technologically emboldened practices like extreme surveillance - is demonstrative of the commodification process through which a person, their attributes, and their affective labour are produced by and for exchange (Polyani, 1944). The commodification of care, especially in the global North, is bolstered by ageing populations and increased employment rates amongst women, with no compensatory reduction to men’s working hours, resulting in scarce care provision alternatives of the intra-familial or non-waged variety (Gallagher, 2018; McDowell, 2014). Unpredictable working patterns with highly individualised and “unsocial” schedules are the result of intensified working hours and always-available expectations set by employers (James, 2017). These factors, compounded by a withdrawal of public services under austerity politics in many countries, render a global market for care workers not only possible but necessary (MacLeavy, 2021).

Global recruitment for the provision of care in private homes has become progressively marketised (Ehrenreich & Hochschild 2003; England & Henry 2013); “A growing number of middle- and upper-class households across the world delegate the provision of care for their children and elderly or sick relatives to migrant workers from countries with lower income levels” (Schwiter & Steiner, 2020: 4). Affluent families of destination countries benefit from an emotional surplus, while causing a “care drain” in workers’ countries of origin (Pratt, 2009). Some refer to this as emotional imperialism (Hochschild, 2015).

Smart-home technologies enable new forms of - and conditions for - care work (England, 2010). The surveillance of childcare providers using ‘nanny cams’ on the private premises of their employers denotes a multi-dimensional context where the workplace is also their home. Recent surveys suggest that workers themselves consider it an ethical imperative to be told about the use of cameras (Bernd, Abu-Salma, & Frik, 2020). The high level of scrutiny facilitated by nanny cams would warrant backlash in other employment contexts where it would undoubtedly be considered unnecessarily invasive or even discriminatory. However, the norms of domestic work have been set out as unique from the start as a recognition that entrusting someone with one’s child is intimate and anxiety-inducing. In this case, nanny cam technology multiplies the affective production of ease and calm offered by the initial care work itself. The beneficiaries of the care work are imbued with a greater sense of control, while the workers (often marginalised/minority women) experience conditions unacceptable to/for those of greater privilege.

In this case, technology serves to discipline workers, reifying their position as subject to their own surveillance, rendering them, and their work, more readily legible as a commodity. For example, traditional networks of agencies and referrals for the recruitment of care workers are now rivalled by online marketplaces like The site offers workers the opportunity to share evidence of their affective abilities; they are “encouraged to upload videos of themselves to highlight bubbly, warm, or fun personalities; write up biographical narratives; or add links to their social media accounts” (Mateescu, 2018). Rating systems on these recruitment sites reinforce the workers’ affective labour as measurable and marketable (Brush & Vasupuram, 2006 & Henry 2018). Large Language Models or facial recognition technologies have the potential to further intensify the commodification process, aiding the packaging and selling of workers’ behaviour. A profile that previously listed a worker as “bilingual” can be made more specific with the help of LLM: “ChatGPT analysed for fully integrative bilingualism counting an average of four switches between languages an hour.” It is clear that in the commodification of care work, “production for use is systemically displaced by production for exchange” (Prudham, 2019: 125).

New modes of resistance and organising are also made possible by digital communication tools, where workers in isolation can connect with others, participate in grassroots movements, and raise public awareness (Fish, 2015; Hobden, 2015). Social media platforms make it easier for journalists and academics to get in touch with these workers to study and share findings about their experiences (Dalgas, 2016). In general, technology has increased the visibility of care workers: recruitment websites create digital records of their employment and social media profiles give them a virtual presence despite limited physical mobility.

Union and worker-organising aimed at balancing power in employment relationships are nearly impossible in the context of domestic care work. In some countries, care workers are explicitly excluded from provisions protecting their freedom of association and any collective bargaining rights (Gomes & Banerjee, 2017). Moreover, conventional demarcations between compensated working hours and non-working hours are less relevant in the care sector (Baines & Armstrong, 2019). Caring roles include the curation of a persona that maintains employer’s expectations of responsibility, meaning carers self-regulate their personal lives to match their employer’s implicit desires for an unsexed or sexy, partnered or single, mother or childless, ever-available worker who is docile and obedient (Cox, 2007; Maher & Staab, 2005).

The future of work in the affective economy is built upon an underpaid, feminised labour force where workers from economically poorer environments provide mitigation for the care dilemmas of the time-poor in the global North, while their own care predicaments remain untended to. The commodification of care then complicates fundamental assumptions about technologically enabled “progress” or idyllic notions of the future of work, as traditional gender roles, biases, and stereotypes shape technological advancements, perpetuating mechanisms of control and domination.

Dr. Winter is a Postdoctoral researcher at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia, focusing on gender, technology, and labour. She works with feminist and creative methodologies to probe common assumptions to do with the future of work.


Baines, D. and Armstrong, P., 2019. Non‐job work/unpaid caring: Gendered industrial relations in long‐term care. Gender, Work & Organization, 26(7), pp.934-947.

Bernd, J., Abu-Salma, R. and Frik, A., 2020. {Bystanders’} Privacy: The Perspectives of Nannies on Smart Home Surveillance. In 10th USENIX Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI 20).

Brush, B.L. and Vasupuram, R., 2006. Nurses, nannies and caring work: importation, visibility and marketability. Nursing Inquiry, 13(3), pp.181-185.

Cherrier, H. and Murray, J.B., 2004. The sociology of consumption: the hidden facet of marketing. Journal of Marketing Management, 20(5-6), pp.509-525.

Cox, R., 2007. The au pair body: Sex object, sister or student?. European Journal of Women's Studies, 14(3), pp.281-296.

Dalgas, K.M., 2016. Au pairs on Facebook. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 6(3), pp.175-182.

Ehrenreich, B., & Hochschild, A. R. (Eds.). (2003). Global woman: Nannies, maids, and sex workers in the new economy. Macmillan.

England, K., 2010. Home, work and the shifting geographies of care. Ethics, Place and Environment, 13(2), pp.131-150.

England, K., & Henry, C. (2013). Care work, migration and citizenship: international nurses in the UK. Social & Cultural Geography, 14(5), 558-574.

Fish, J.N., 2015. Making history through policy: A field report on the international domestic workers movement. International Labor and Working-Class History, 88, pp.156-165.

Gallagher, A. (2018) The business of care: marketization and the new geographies of childcare, Progress in Human Geography, 42(5): 706-722

Gomes, A.V.M. and Banerjee, R., 2017. The guarantee of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights to domestic workers: two opposite models, Brazil and Canada. Pensar-Revista de Ciências Jurídicas, 22(3).

Hardt, M., 1999. Affective Labor. Boundary 2, 26(2): 89-100.

Henry, C., 2018. The abstraction of care: What work counts?. Antipode, 50(2), pp.340-358.

Hobden, C., 2015. Domestic workers organize–but can they bargain. Mapping collective bargaining and other forms of negotiation in the domestic work sector.

Hochschild, A.R., 2015. Global care chains and emotional surplus value. In Justice, politics, and the family (pp. 249-261). Routledge.

MacLeavy J (2021) Care-work, gender inequality and technological advancement in the age of Covid-19, Gender, Work and Organization, 28(1): 138-154

Maher*, K.H. and Staab, S., 2005. Nanny politics: The dilemmas of working women's empowerment in Santiago, Chile. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 7(1), pp.71-89.

Mateescu, A., 2018. Nannies already felt like they were under constant surveillance. The internet has made it even worse. Slate.  

McDowell, L., 2014. Gender, work, employment and society: Feminist reflections on continuity and change. Work, employment and society, 28(5), pp.825-837.

Polyani, K., 1944. The Great Transformation (Rheinhart, New York).

Pratt, G., 2009. Circulating sadness: witnessing Filipina mothers' stories of family separation. Gender, place & culture, 16(1), pp.3-22.

Prudham., 2019. Commodification. Create, Produce, Consume.

Schwiter, K. and Steiner, J., 2020. Geographies of care work: The commodification of care, digital care futures and alternative caring visions. Geography Compass, 14(12), p.e12546.


Dr M Winter


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