Need for policy shift: Women with burden of unpaid work take up jobs of poor quality, low wages, poor or no social protection

Prof Hirway

By Indira Hirway*

There are several reasons why unpaid work is an important area of concern for an economy, and why one should pay attention to this work. Unpaid work is highly unequally distributed between men and women. The time use surveys, though not universal, national or regular in many countries, clearly indicate that (1) unpaid work is highly unequally distributed between men and women, with women sharing its main burden – in terms of participation as well as the time spent on it, (2) paid work is also distributed unequally with men carrying somewhat higher burden, and (3) women carry significantly higher burden of total work (paid and unpaid work) than men. This highly unequal distribution of work is an area of concern not only for gender justice but also for the economy.

Unpaid work is also seen as “household overhead time” (HOT), which is defined as the minimum number of hours a household needs to maintain and manage the household, i.e. the minimum number of hours needed to transform raw materials to consumable goods and to provide a clean and healthy environment.  In poor countries, and particularly in poor households where more time is needed in processing of food, cooking, cleaning etc. and on fetching water and fuel wood (due to poor availability of basic infrastructure), the HOT is very high.  In poor countries and poor households therefore very limited time is left for resting, for acquiring human capital – education, skills, or for productive labour market work.

What is important to note is that the predominance of women in this work is not out of their free choice or their relative efficiency or inefficiency; the division of the work between men and women is largely a social construct – determined by patriarchal traditions and values. In fact, this highly unequal distribution is at the root of power relations between men and women, and all pervasive gender inequalities.

As this work is outside the purview of economic policies, the drudgery of work along with the time stress of unpaid workers, the technology and the productivity of this work, their working conditions etc. are also outside the purview of policy making. Thus, unpaid work that contributes significantly to the economy is not addressed systematically in policy making. Thus unpaid work that contributes significantly to the economy is not addressed systematically in policy making.

Mainstream Economic Theories

Excluding unpaid work form mainstream economic theories are not acceptable to some of the present generation of economists who approach macroeconomics realistically and logically.  It is to be accepted that domestic unpaid services are not just consumption, but are also production by household members. Also, unpaid work is not free (it has cost) and it is also not unlimited (there are limits of women’s capacity to work), and therefore it is an economic good.

Because of engagement in unpaid work, work participation rates of unpaid workers (women) declines in the labour market, reducing the total workforce/labour force in the economy. Significant number of women is observed to be not participating in the labour market because of their domestic duties.  As this is not an optimum use of labour in the economy, it is a loss to the macro-economy.

In spite of constituting 50% (or 48-49%) of the population, women’s contribution to the conventional macro-economy is very small – in terms of their labour market participation rate as well as in terms of their share in high productivity sectors. Women contribute much less than their potential to the economy.

The unequal burden of unpaid work on women divides the labour market on gender lines. The burden of unpaid work, along with the social norms and traditions attached to it, results in lower acquisition of human capital (health, education, skills etc.) by women, which in turn, constrain women’s performance in the labour market.

When most women enter the labour market, they enter with a burden of responsibilities of unpaid work on their shoulder, which tend to deny them a level playing field to start with. Their lower education/skills along with their lower mobility result in their lower participation in the labour market, their overcrowding in low productivity occupations, lower wages and higher unemployment rates. The segregation and discrimination against women tend to reduce their prospects in the labour market. Women entrepreneurs also tend to be constrained due to their lower access to resources, to credit, and to technology. In short, the sex-based division of the labour at home and in the market does not allow an economy to tap the full potential of its labour force.  It is estimated by IMF that the GDP of a country can increase considerably if the full potential of women labour force is tapped.

Neo-liberal Policies and Unpaid Work

The neo- liberal policies, through their impact on unpaid work, have an adverse impact on the economy.  Neo-liberal policies have offload cost of these economic policies on unpaid work.  The success of the neo-liberal policies in raising economic growth is usually achieved at the cost of women; and this in turn causes some macroeconomic losses.  For example, trade liberalization expands global markets for domestic products and raises the rate of economic growth. However, it also results in restructuring of production (for flexibility) and restructuring of labour (for flexibility and for reducing cost of labour).

As women with the burden of unpaid work fit well in this flexibility, they end up taking up work (usually at the low end of the value chain) which is of poor quality, i.e. with low wages, poor or no social protection, low employment status and with poor terms of employment in general.  This tends to increase the total burden of total work, resulting in their time stress. This is not only a loss of well being of a part of the workforce (usually women) but it is also depletion of human capital (of women) and sub-optimal use of the labour force in the economy.  Ultimately this reduces the potential gains to the economy in the long run.

Similarly, when public expenditure is reduced to meet targets of fiscal deficits (as is done frequently by governments for macroeconomic stability), it tends to reduce expenditure on health, education and public services.  This in turn tends to increase the burden of unpaid work on women. As privatization of these services makes them expensive, these are brought within the household as a part of their coping strategy, reducing their well being as well as human capital / productivity on the one hand and care deficiency in the economy on the other hand.  These negative consequences however go unnoticed due to the lack of data and are not addressed by suitable policies.

In other words, partial view of the economy and partial policy making result into several distortions at the macroeconomic level.

The Triple “R” Approach

The triple “R” approach for integrating unpaid work with macroeconomic policies was first recommended by Diane Elson (‘The Three R’s of Unpaid Work: Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution’, paper presented at the Expert Group Meeting on Unpaid Work, Economic Development and Human Well-Being, UNDP, New York, November 2008). It is now a well-accepted approach. This approach attempts to integrate unpaid work into the mainstream economy by reducing it and by reorganizing it between paid and unpaid work.  Such integration is expected to improve the efficiency of the total workforce on the one hand and reap some macroeconomic gains on the other hand.

The first “R” refers to ‘recognition’ of unpaid work, viz giving visibility to this work in national statistical system. This is to be achieved mainly through conducting regular time use surveys that collect detailed and comprehensive information on all human activities including unpaid activities. Giving visibility implies;  (a) providing information on the  participation by women and men as well as boys and girls on different activities including unpaid activities along with the time spent by them on these activities,  (b) providing information on technology used in the different unpaid (and other) activities including the drudgery involved and time stress experienced by workers, (c) estimating determinants of the nature and size of unpaid work-in terms of socio-economic characters of household and  individuals, and (d) showing how the total care is shared by the government, the market, civil society organizations and within the household.  All this information helps in designing interventions for reducing and reorganizing this work.

The second “R” refers to reduction in unpaid work in order to reduce the drudgery part of the work as well as the time stress of unpaid workers. This can be done in multiple ways: (a) by improving technology of some work to reduce drudgery and to improve productivity of unpaid work (for example, providing fuel efficient stoves for cooking in place of primitive stoves using fuel wood), (2) by providing infrastructural support again to reduce drudgery (for example, providing water supply at the door step) and (3) by making basic services accessible through improving connectivity(good roads and transportation service) or by setting up such  service at convenient locations. These steps will release women from the burden of unpaid work, and reduce their time stress to enjoy leisure or to participate in productive work.  In the case of children performing this work, these steps will release children so they could fully participate in education.

The third “R” refers to redistribute unpaid work within household and within the four institutions (care diamond institutions). Redistribution of unpaid work within the household requires changes in the prevailing patriarchal norms and customs.  This kind of redistribution is essential primarily for providing a level playing field to women in the economy, and particularly in the labour market for achieving optimum efficient allocation of labour force.  Even if outside institutions share unpaid work, some unpaid work will always remain within the household. Government may consider providing incentives to encourage sharing of unpaid work by men.

The type of unpaid work that can be shifted to the mainstream economy could be (1) child care – taking care of children when mothers are working or not working, i.e. taking care of infants and children, feeding them and taking care of their other needs, and (2) taking care of the disabled, the chronically sick, other sick, old persons etc. It is observed this care when given by households as unpaid care is frequently inadequate either in terms of time spent on it, or in terms of its quality and its regularity as well as reliability. However, if new jobs are created in the mainstream economy to provide this care, the state can ensure delivery of professional care with regularity, on one hand, and unpaid workers can be released from the time stress of this burden on the other hand. The women released from this work may also participate in productive work in the mainstream economy, leading to an optimum use of the labour force.  It is to be reiterated that not all unpaid care / work can be or should be transferred to the mainstream economy.

This reallocation of care resulting in reorganization of labour force (paid +unpaid) has to be a part of a national labour policy for multiple reasons:  it tends to provide a level playing field to women workers in the labour market – for gender justice as well as for raising workforce participation rates of women; it creates new paid employment opportunities in the mainstream economy; it ensures professional care (and solves a major problems of care deficiency of the present) to those who need it; and it tends to optimize the use of the labour force in the economy.

*Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for Development Alternative (CFDA), Ahmedabad. Excerpts from the presidential address by Prof Indira Hirway, “Unpaid Work and the Economy: Linkages and their Implications” at the 56th Annual Conference of the Indian Society of Labour Economics, Ranchi (December 18-20, 2014) 

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