Valuing Unpaid Work
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The following article is a summary of a keynote address
given by Evelyn Dresher of Mothers
are Women at UNPAC's "Counting Women's Work Symposium"
held in Brandon in May 1999.
The measurement of women's unpaid work represented for Mothers
Are Women a new strategy in our advocacy about our experience
of motherhood and motherwork in today's society. It was, and
continues to be, a strategy which uses the tools of the dominant
economic model and challenges what is understood by "work",
and what is understood by "productive" in that model.
It is a strategy based on a feminist analysis and builds on
the work of the women's movement.
One of the objectives of the strategy is to put unpaid work
into the configuration of Canada's National Accounts and it
began with the Census of Population. The Census made women's
unwaged work visible - numerical, actual, and unavoidable.
Now we need to make it worth something, and what that means
is part of the public debate we need to have.
At times the presentation will be technical - talking about
how unpaid work is valued rather than why it is important
to value it. We all know it should be valued because we have
lived with the consequence of it not being valued long enough.
We are tired of being overworked, unpaid, and underpaid. It
is also vital that women increase their economic literacy.
We need to understand the structure of economic value before
we can explore its applications to policy in a way that speaks
to our work (paid and unpaid), our lives, and our needs as
The worth of humanity can't be calculated in dollars
and cents, but our worth is measured and valued everyday.
There is a very elaborate structure of wages and salaries
that tell us how much we are worth in the market economy.
The basic assumption in determining worth in our economic
system is that productive work is worth what is paid for it.
By this definition then, unpaid work is not productive because
it is not paid for. The almost universally accepted United
Nations System of National Accounts that the GDP in part makes
up, divides human activity into market and non-market activity.
The two are distinguished not by the nature of the activity,
its social benefit, but whether or not money changes hands.
Does this mean that unpaid work has no economic value? No.
Statistics Canada has calculated that unpaid work is worth
between 30.6% and 41.4% of the GDP or Gross Domestic Product.
The spread of almost 12% is due to the fact that two valuation
methods were used: the first is replacement method,
and the second is opportunity method. According to
Statistics Canada, the replacement value of unpaid work in
Canada in 1992 was 284.9 billion dollars, while that of opportunity
value is 318.8 billion.
Replacement value is calculated on the basis of how
much it would cost to replace unpaid workers with paid workers
based on current hourly wages for comparable work. Unpaid
work has only been formally recognized by the courts as work
since 1991 when a woman
was awarded compensation for lost capacity to do unpaid work
(in the past, awards went to the husband for loss of his wife's
services). However, it was at a very poor rate which points
for the need for a legally recognized method of meaningfullydefining,
measuring, and valuing unpaid work.
Opportunity method, on the other hand, is calculated
on the amount that those women would be earning if they were
in the paid labour market instead of doing unpaid work. This
means that it is not the unpaid work that is being valued
but the paid work that is not
being done that is valued. The drawback to this method is
its systemic inequity as women earn much less than men especially
in pink collar jobs.
As can be seen, what women do for free has an extremely high
price tag. The estimated value varies widely depending on
the valuation method used and is dependent on how unpaid work
is defined and then measured in the first place.
Replacement and opportunity methods are only two
of a variety of models which have been put forward, most with
significant drawbacks. The process of developing an understanding
of value in relation to unpaid work for social and economic
policy purposes demands that we examine what we mean by value.
Clearly the emotional and family context of unpaid work gives
it a social value larger and more complex than whatever economic
value we might give it. However much we know and appreciate
the intangible personal and social value, we cannot let economists,
politicians, judges, and policy-makers alone tell us our worth
The monetary valuation of unpaid work is a necessary means
of turning "assumed" value into real value; that
is, public policies which improve the well-being of women,
children and their families. Canada is a leading nation in
both the development of techniques for the measurement and
valuation of unpaid work and the statistical indicator systems
designed to help integrate this data into policy. However,
the Canadian government does not appear to be pursuing the
analytical and practical integration of data into policy-making,
despite Canada's dual commitments made in Beijing in 1995,
to measure and value unpaid work and include that in satellite
accounts as subsets of our national accounts.
Valuation techniques are not being explored: the 1992 statistics
continue to be the most recent publicly released figures.
We do not know the value of unpaid work in Canada based on
the 1996 statistics. Why not? Given the primacy of money in
our economic and social culture, statistics on the monetary
value of unpaid work hold greater potential political power
than measurement data alone; value data may imply policy action
that governments are reluctant to take.
Information on the value of unpaid work offers an important
analytical tool to policy makers. It is a means of re-framing
basic policy questions regarding the distribution of resources,
rethinking who is "deserving" of government support.
Monetary valuation of unpaid work is also key to challenging
the systemic undervaluation of women's paid work that is a
primary factor in women's economic insecurity. Valuing unpaid
work can also further the understanding of the macro economic
implications of unpaid work. Global economic restructuring
creates greater urgency as structural adjustment programs
in Canada and many other countries rely on women's unpaid
work to replace reduced and eliminated paid benefits and services.
Recently, two different United Nations human rights committees
have chastised Canada for reducing debt at the expense of
Canadian women and minorities, who bear the disproportionate
burden of social spending cuts. Restructuring was viewed as
discriminatory, linking the issue of women's poverty with
women's equality. As governments re-privatize caring activities,
women's unpaid care work is forced to increase at the expense
of their economic security, health and overall well-being.
The economic and social implication of these market-to-non-market
shifts must be analyzed and cannot be done without an understanding
of both the amount and value of unpaid work.
Placing a dollar value on unpaid work allows policy makers
to compare unpaid work with other economic variables measures
only in dollars. Valuation thus becomes a communication tool
by translating unpaid work into a language governments understand:
money. Valuation makes it possible to integrate unpaid work
data into mainstream economic statistics. Integration with
our primary economic statistics, if only through satellite
accounts, may be critical in the short term to raise the profile
of unpaid work and include it in policy development.
The two most commonly used systems of valuation
- replacement cost and opportunity cost - calculate the value
of household work on the basis of market wages of comparable
paid work which unfortunately perpetuates the gender inequalities
in the market as women's wages are lower than men's and wages
for "women's work" is lowest of all.
An alternative wage based method assigns value using an average
wage (including benefits) multiplied by the number of hours
of unpaid work, as calculated through time use studies (a
person rate). This method mitigates the effects of current
market biases and also recognizes that time has value: time
spent on unpaid work is time that cannot be spent on paid
work. Two other methods are Output and Pay equity.
Economists opposed to valuing unpaid work think
it is too subjective, and inherently inaccurate, but we say
a value that falls short is more accurate and preferable to
the current value of zero. Feminist economists worry that
no evaluation scheme could escape the gender biased methodology
that pervades the economic system. Those of us at the grassroots
feel that this issue is not about statistical methodology
or about economics, but about public policy.
We have concerns about how the data will be used. Our concerns
make it clear that women must play an active role in deciding
how the work is measured, how it is valued and how the resulting
data is used. We must be part of the process and we must be
vigilant. It is up to us to take the information and use it
to fight for policies that further women's equality and support
our various roles, responsibilities and work in society.
Value data has the power to unequivocally demonstrate
the contribution of unpaid work to the economy, and forms
a basis for determination of entitlement to society's resources.
The goal is to reduce the gap between women's economic contribution
and their control over economic resources. This is why Mothers
are Women(MAW) has called the struggle to get unpaid work
measured and valued the "kitchen table revolution."
It is an issue of economic visibility and economic rights.
That unpaid work is more than a labour of love is a radical
idea. At bottom remains, however, that other sense of value.
Marilyn Waring wrote:
Political and economic policies flow from the narrow
agenda of political elitesÄ And while we can collect more
data,... goals and priorities should flow, not from the assemblages
of statistics, but from values. Our values... the values of
centuries of enslavement.