Gender, unemployment and unpaid work

By permission of Cathy Wilcox

In her paean to the virtues and benefits of paid work, Prime Minister Julia Gillard fails to acknowledge the complex intersections of paid and unpaid work in social and individual well being.

Good jobs, fair pay and recognition of other responsibilities add to our community well being.

However, bad work, increased workplace hours and pressure, insecure and unpredictable work and the result may undermine worker capacities to deliver their other responsibilities or to maintain their own well being. A recent ANU study showed the health benefits of becoming employed were dependent on the quality of the job.

Moving from unemployment into a high quality job led to improved mental health however the transition from unemployment to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed. This finding together with unpaid work demands raises questions on the efficacy of increased ‘sticks’ being used to push some unemployed groups into paid work.

There are serious gender differences in the allocation of paid work and responsibilities for care and nurture. Women often curtail their paid work involvement because they take on more of the unpaid tasks. Australia has the second highest unpaid work sector in the OECD which means we are still dealing with most of it in the home.

Increased use of care services cannot and should not replace all informal care and many people prefer to maintain a substantial role in providing unpaid care. So tensions will arise when the spheres of unpaid and paid work conflict.

The current Budget ‘leaks’ propose tightening up on demands on working age recipients of income support includes the ‘primary carer’ ie the parent that cares for the children. This includes sole parents whose children have turned six.

These parents are now expected to seek and take on at least 15 hours a week of paid work, a change of policy that started with the McClure Report in 2000 and enshrined in Howard’s Welfare to Work program in 2006.

This change moved solo mothers off Parenting Payments and onto the lower paid tougher income tested Newstart Payment and demanded they looked for a job. The propaganda used feminist rhetoric to justify this as the right to have paid work, corrupted into an obligation to take paid work.

These sole parents, plus some longer term recipients who are ‘grandfathered’ on the former higher payment, provide the bulk of working age women on income support and are therefore likely to be targeted in the Budget.

Women on these payments are often ignored in the flurry of focus on the presumed male single dole bludger, and given their other responsibilities, need to be considered.

The biggest group of these are those sole parents. There were 1,324,310 women receiving income support payments earlier this year according a response to a question at 2010/11 budget estimates.

There were actually fewer men 1,024,297 in toto on such payments. There are more men on Newstart, 326,000 vs 209,000 women, but nearly 38,000 of those are sole parents with children 6 plus. Add in the 314, 000 single parent recipients of parenting payments and 120,000 on Carer pensions raises the question of the relationship of unpaid care and paid work.

How feasible is to push these recipients into the current job market? Last week in New Matilda I outlined the relatively few jobs that were available to the many more jobseekers.

There are more than five active jobseeker for each vacancy, and most want qualifications. How many of these would be suitable for those sole parents who have limited recent job experience and pressures, as outlined below, to be home early and take time out?

I was involved in two research projects on sole parents and paid work, one in 2001 and another started in 2007.

Both showed that the parents were more than happy to take on part-time or even more paid work BUT only if their parenting capacities were sustained. They put their children’s needs first, like most good parents should, so recognised that there would be time clashes because a sole parent has no one else to call on if a child is ill or in trouble.

Additionally, there were often issues around separation and ongoing family law issues, children with minor disabilities or recurring health problems, housing, transport and other pressures that could make attendance a problem at certain types of jobs. They also needed jobs to fit school and care hours and that wasn’t always easy or possible.

The views of both projects were neatly summed up in a Cathy Wilcox cartoon she drew for us The report features a quote from one of 2001 focus groups which sums up the feeling of many respondents.

“It’s hypocritical … they say, ‘education is important. Stay on at school. Get a degree. Do all these things’. But – if you’re a single parent, ‘get out to work’. If you’re in with a partner, you might be working different shifts, but if you’re a sole parent [the children] are coming home to an empty house.

"They might be going out with their friends and you don’t know what they’re getting up to …[and] they’ll blame it on the fact that you’re a single parent. It is very hypocritical and very cynical saying on one hand ‘be good parents’ and then on the other hand, say: ‘hard luck, you have to go out and work.”

Our unpaid domestic unpaid work sector, according to the latest OECD figures, is bigger than most of our other industries, yet we fail to recognise its value to the way we live and our well being. Policies that insist on making paid work the centrepiece of life undermine and devalue the other parts of our lives.

It may also implicitly trash those women and men who do decide that family needs outweigh their own career or job options and need partial public support for the valued services they offer.

This type of policy revaluing should be done without reinforcing women’s role in the unpaid household roles. Recognising the value of care roles or other community contributions for all of us and requires encouraging wider involvement by men.

This approach suggests a need to rethink the current policy emphasis on paid work as the main source of respect and value and the pressure being put on those on benefits to find any type of paid work.

We need a benefit system that recognises the value of certain unpaid contributions and a workforce culture that sees shorter hours and other responsibilities as a norm to be encouraged. Our unpaid contribution are major, if variable, parts of the good life and some people may need ongoing support financially to allow them to fulfil these important social roles.

An affluent developed country needs to make decisions on whether the quality of social life for many of its citizens requires collective funding of certain types of income.

There are carer payments but these require high level needs of the caree to be proved, so the lesser daily and intermittent needs of others are not considered.

The aged pension in Bismarck’s Germany in the late 19th century was one of the first examples of the collective risk sharing of the welfare state.

However, in the process of modernising payments, we seem to have overlooked the role of the state in supporting forms of care and support that added social value, if not gross domestic product.

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