A Woman's work is never counted
by Penney Kome
After a year of picking up groceries, picking up toys, picking up clothes and towels, and picking up the children, Mother's Day is the day that Moms are supposed to put their feet up and let others pick up the slack.
But all family members should sit *down* to receive this piece of news from the UN: globally, the unpaid work done by women has been valued at $11 trillion (US) a year. One sentimental day a year hardly seems sufficient recognition; the hand that rocks the cradle is taken for granted worldwide.
Macroeconomics is only now waking up to the the importance of mothers' unpaid work. Economists joke that if a bachelor hires a housekeeper and pays her for housekeeping, then her work is counted as a contribution to the Gross National Product. If, however, the housekeeper marries and continues doing the very same work--without pay--then her work is no long counted as part of the GNP. The past two years have seen a rush to calculate how much all those married housekeepers (or unmarried mothers) are worth.
The Platform for Action, adopted at the Beijing World Conference on Women, calls on governments to seek knowledge of women's unremunerated work, "including methods for assessing its value in quantitative terms." That specifically includes caregiving for dependents and elderly family members, subsistence farming, and women's self-employment or small businesses.
That was only one step in a long campaign by (among others) the International Women Count Network, which grew out of the International Wages for Housework Committee. IWCN membership includes women in developing countries and women who have worked as domestic helpers in the First World.
Statistics Canada got a head start on this campaign, having brought forth estimates before: a 1971 meta-analysis reported that unpaid housework is usually the equivalent of 34 to 39 percent of a country's GDP.
Saskatchewan homemaker Carol Lees revived the issue in 1994 when she refused to fill out Census Canada forms the way that they were printed. She was willing to risk jail rather than list her work hours as zero just because she worked unpaid at home. Lees found staunch allies in the Ottawa-based group Mothers Are Women which has been lobbying for years for recognition.
The upshot of concerted lobbying was that three new questions about caregiving hours were included in the last census.
Sure enough, in line with UN estimates that women do two-thirds of the work in the world, Statistics Canada found that women do two-thirds of the 25 billion hours of unpaid work in Canada.
Estimating the value of work done in the home is a tricky business. The method most commonly used is to break down the long, seamless, workday into separate services and estimate their market value if purchased outside the home.
Surprise! The dollar value of replacing each task in the marketplace thus derived is well above the median income for US or Canadian households. The kicker in this method is that childcare involves quite a lot of waiting-around time--eg, on-call time, similar to fire-fighters hanging around the fire hall, or interns napping next door to the ER. It's still duty time, even if it doesn't always seem productive.
In 1994, Statistics Canada estimated that the cost of replacing the unwaged work of a woman at home (with at least one pre-school child) at $26,310.
Yet, because at-home spouses are deemed to work for *love* (technically, they work for room & board), they are usually referred to as dependents, if there's a breadwinner around.
Advertisers have another, affectionate term for them: consumers. John Kenneth Galbraith noted in Economics and the Public Purpose that, historicially, instituting the role of homemaker served to solve the disappearing domestic servant problem. But the modern homemaker's chief function, he said, is to "administer consumption."
Surely the key word here is "administration." Married women with children, who also have jobs outside the home, usually still retain the major responsibility for organizing, supervising and carrying out domestic chores.
StatsCan reported that unpaid work took up 831 hours of an average man's year, whereas it's an average of 1,482 hours for a woman. As Cathy Jones put it on (the TV program) "This Hour Has 22 Minutes", women work an extra month every year. And of course, single mothers usually have to carry a double load, all by themselves.
When conservatives call for a return to so-called family values, they really do mean value, as in an unbelievable bargain. Think of this invisible national treasure: an enormous pool of unpaid workers who can be forgotten when it's time to draw up national policies such as childcare, elder care, health care, unemployment insurance, pensions, or social assistance.
In the Nasty Nineties, governments are trying to balance their budgets by removing work from paid caregiving professions (such as teaching, nursing and social work)and sending it back into the unpaid volunteer sphere of domestic life.
Cutting back on services is only one part of the push to reassert women's primary responsibility for unpaid work. Another is this: with six in ten women in the workforce earning entitlements to pensions, unemployment insurance, sick leave and other benefits in their own right, suddenly the federal and provincial governments are looking to base entitlements on family income, rather than individual earnings, thus reinstating women's dependent status.
In addition, the fact that women take charge of unpaid work in the home carries over to the paid workforce. Unpaid work drags down the market value of caregiving work, from maintenance to teaching and nursing.
A UN Secretary-General's report states, "Women's and men's use of time is different and unequal." In both developed and developing countries, women --whether mothers or not-- generally work much longer than men.
"The double burden of working women could be a principal cause for their predominance in low status and low paid employment and often precarious working conditions, offering them little income, job security and prospects for advancement."
On a worldwide scale, the UN has found that women do two-thirds of the work in the world, receive less than 5 percent of the world's income, and own less than one percent of the world's real property. Yet until recently, the kind of work that women do has been specifically excluded fron the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA), and even now it's being investigated only for inclusion in what's called "satellite accounts."
Most projects implemented by organizations from the developed world have tended to overlook women's struggles to feed and support their families. Instead, foreign agencies consulted with the local men, and imposed expensive and ill-fated projects, directed at bringing developing nations into the monetary economy. Somehow the profit never seemed to stay in the community.
For instance, subsistence agriculture is specifically excluded from IMF and World Bank calculations. Therefore, IMF and World Bank projects often evict mothers and their families from small patches of arable land --where they are, at least, reasonably well nourished-- to create huge plantations with cash crops. The nation's GDP flourishes, but the local children go hungry.
Such a huge blind spot provides a clue to other major flaws with the current economic system, as explored in the book If Women Counted, by former New Zealand MP Marilyn Waring.
When Ms Waring dug deeply into the UN library to analyse the global accounting system, she found other glaring omissions. For example, no economic value is imputed to pristine wilderness areas. The Alaska coastline putatively had NO economic value, until the Exxon Valdez disaster created an economic bonanza in clean-up costs.
A healthy child is economically neutral. A sick child who requires expensive medical care, generates economic activity, and thus increases the GDP.
Peace also has no market value, but war cranks the world economic machinery into a frenzy. Ms Waring argues that an economic system based on paying for war is an economic system that constantly drives nations towards more wars.
The UN is quietly undertaking the most radical economic analysis of all--an analysis of the world's economy calculated as if women's work counted.
This is the ultimate tidying-up project. And everybody in the human family is going to have to pitch in on this one.
Copyright Penney Kome 1997 Penney J. Kome is a Calgary-based writer whose published books include SOMEBODY HAS TO DO IT: Whose Work Is Housework? (McClelland & Stewart, 1982)
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