Making unpaid work count

How many hours do you spend making your home work? Whether mothers are in the paid workforce or not, chances are managing your home takes up quite a few hours in your week.

Think of it another way. If you didn’t do any work at home, how many services would you have to employ? - A cook? A cleaner? A laundry service? A child carer? A supervisor?….

How much would that cost, and could you afford it? Well the truth is all this unpaid work is worth something. Actually to the health and wealth of Australia, it’s worth a great deal.

Yet it is in many ways an ‘invisible’ contribution to the nation’s productivity- it’s not counted.

When you fill in a Census form you are asked comprehensive questions about your life, your income and your family. The Census is the major statistical gathering effort conducted across the nation, held every five years. From it, a picture of Australians at work and at home will be drawn. Yet none of the unpaid work we do at home or in the community will be included. We’ll know how many cars are garaged at a home, and how many people live there, but not how much work goes into keeping it running.

The Census is a fundamental reference.

All levels of government use census data to make policy decisions about Australia’s economic and social programs. Census information is used to work out the boundaries of our electorates, to determine state funding allocations, and to design and assess programs. Business, industry associations, institutions, academia and media depend on census data as a valuable decision-making tool. Census data are also used to plan important community services such as health care, education, transportation, day-care, fire and police protection, employment and training programs, and housing.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics told motherInc that it didn’t believe it needed to include questions on unpaid work in the Census. A spokesperson explained that while the issue of unpaid work is recognised as important, the ABS was doing a better job by carrying out a series of surveys on the issue. And anyway “the Census would be impossibly long if it included questions about every issue of concern to the community.”

Unpaid work is not a small issue.

1n 1995 the UN called for the imputing of a dollar value to unpaid work in the home and in the community by governments around the world.

In 1994 the respected Melbourne economist Duncan Ironmonger published a research paper which did just that- he showed how much unpaid work was worth to us.

Ironmonger found that the hours of unpaid work performed by Australians are substantially higher than the hours of paid work (in 1992 40 percent more), and over a nearly 20 year period from 1974, the hours of unpaid work in Australia grew by 131 million hours per week-- a 53 percent increase (2.4percent a year). Subsequent work by the ABS showed that this rate of growth may be slowing a little, dropping 1 percent between 1992 - 97, but still growing.

The contribution of this unpaid work to the economy was valued by Ironmonger at an 'imputed' dollar valuation. By working out the rate per hour of a cook, a child carer, a gardener, a laundry hand, a cleaner etc., and ‘imputing’ at the rate of $14.25 an hour (it has since risen to $20 an hour) he worked out that the unvalued contribution to the country's national product in 1992 was $341 billion. This compared to the standard market calculation in the dollar economy, a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $395 billion. The research showed that the value added by household production to the economy is almost as much as the value added by market production.

Also of course 65 percent of unpaid work is done by women- many of whom are doing the 'double-shift': Entry to the paid workforce adds to women’s workload, it does not tend to replace the hours of unpaid work.

Why is this important?

1. recognition—unpaid work is not part of the market place because no dollars change hands. This renders the work largely 'invisible' to economists, politicians and policy planners, unless they specifically search out the surveys completed by the ABS. This has tended towards a 'feminisation' of poverty.

2. Since the industrial revolution and the development of paid work, there has been a drift towards the visibility and power of paid work. Unpaid work feels unvalued. Perhaps if it were officially recognised as important, there would be a more genuine choice for women to decide if they want to stay in the home or go into the paid workforce;

3. The Census is the crucial statistical data used by governments to develop appropriate policies. This includes tax, welfare, home support, public transport etc. At the moment almost one half of the productive work contributed to the economy is neglected in this data.

4.There are long term consequences when it comes to retirement income. Unpaid work cannot provide a super or retirement fund contribution. So women who manage homes, or provide voluntary community work miss out after their huge contribution to the productivity of the nation.

5. Canada is a world leader in this area having started research in the '70's... and in 1996 including questions about it in their Census. Unpaid work in the home was recognised in the 1998 Canadian National Budget, and unpaid caregivers can now claim a tax credit for unpaid work.

The Australian Census 2001 spokesperson denied to motherInc that “the contribution of unpaid work remains invisible” if questions about it are excluded from the Census. She explained “that reliable information on this topic is best obtained by specially designed sample surveys using trained interviewers”, yet also revealed that “in the lead-up to the 2006 Census, the ABS will be examining unpaid work questions for inclusion in the Census”.