JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Why work on the homefront won't count this year

Wanniassa mother and volunteer worker Kylie Higgins, pictured with three-year-old twins Hugo and Lola, is disgusted by the survey's cancellation.

Wanniassa mother and volunteer worker Kylie Higgins, pictured with three-year-old twins Hugo and Lola, is disgusted by the survey's cancellation. Photo: Colleen Petch

The millions of hours that women put into unpaid household, voluntary and community work will go uncounted this year as the government axes the Bureau of Statistics Work, Life and Family Survey to save money.

The ABS has cancelled this year's planned survey to save up to $1.4 million, meaning there will be a 13-year gap between the last survey in 2006 and the planned resumption of the survey in 2019.

The findings of the Work, Life and Family survey - taken in 1992, 1997 and 2006 - have had a big impact on government policy over the past two decades, relating to employment and unpaid work, family and caring responsibilities, retirement planning and the broader social and economic participation of women. Survey findings have been used to support the introduction of paid maternity leave, childcare reforms, flexible work hours and carer support, among other things.

Social researchers and women's activists have expressed outrage that the government will not receive accurate data on how much unpaid work women contribute to the economy until 2019, nor will it be able to formulate policy based on an accurate understanding of the work-life balance of families.

The 2013 survey was also supposed to include detailed data on time spent on caring by parents and grandparents, and of people with disabilities and the elderly.

Professor Marian Sawer from the Australian National University's School of Politics and International Relations said the decision was disastrous for families and women.

''Time-use surveys are the only accurate record of the unpaid work that underpins economic activity. They provide crucial data enabling policy analysis that accurately encompasses women's working lives and experience,'' she said.

Diary-based time-use surveys provided accurate data concerning the extent and distribution of unpaid work and its intersection with paid work.

''This data is vital for good policy and planning … We need to be able to estimate the value to the economy of goods and services provided on an unpaid basis. Without such measures economic statistics are incomplete, misleading and can lead to counterproductive policy outcomes.''

Wanniassa mother of two Kylie Higgins believes the ABS cut is a slap in the face to many women who already ''feel pretty invisible some days''.

''Of course I am horrified they've cut the survey. This data is relevant to all those people moving into parenthood over the coming years and it completely devalues the role I play 24 hours a day and the role my partner plays in helping care for our children at night and on the weekends.''

Since twins Hugo and Lola were born three years ago, Ms Higgins - who gave up her career in human services - has come to terms with the loss of income and, more starkly, loss of status which accompanies a full-time salaried position.

She feels a double whammy from the survey being axed as it also provided valuable information on volunteerism in the community and caring for people with disabilities.

On top of the chaotic schedule involved in caring for two toddlers, Ms Higgins runs a volunteer playgroup and each weekend undertakes a paid shift in a disability house.

''To say I feel underpaid and undervalued right now doesn't quite cover it,'' she said.

''I feel insulted that the things that mean so much to me, staying at home to look after my children and volunteering to help my community, aren't going to rate in any policy the government considers over the next six years.

''It completely devalues the role of parents and volunteers in the community.''

Academics on the reference group were contacted late last year by the Social Conditions Branch of the ABS to advise the 2013 survey was being cancelled despite advanced preparations already having been undertaken.

Assistant statistician David Zago wrote in an email the ''difficult'' decision had been taken ''in response to the recently announced MYEFO [Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook] savings, which requires the Bureau of Statistics to save around $1.1 million-$1.4 million per annum.

''Cancelling [the Work, Life and Family Survey] will be a significant contributor to these savings in this financial year and in 2013-14.''

In an attempt to ''ameliorate some of the impact of this cancellation'' some information relating to superannuation would be taken in the 2013-14 Survey of Income and Housing.

Mr Zago said preparation would be made for ''a timely reinstatement of the collection as soon as possible'' and that ''options for bringing forward the scheduled 2019 [survey] cycle will be considered by the ABS in 2013''.

ANU research fellow in the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health Dr Julie Smith said it was a ''mind-blowing decision'' given the data was so crucial to women's lives.

Dr Smith used the data from successive surveys for her own research into time pressures on new mothers and the economics of work and breastfeeding.

''This will completely knock the stuffing out of the whole of time-use research in Australia - to make a budget saving which is basically chicken feed,'' she said.

Professorial Fellow of Sociology at the University of New England Michael Bittman had been monitoring and analysing the survey since its pilot in 1987 and said the ''incredible'' gap of 13 years between surveys would almost destroy the data set.

''Ideally it should be five-year intervals; nobody would dream of using 13-year-old data,'' he said.

His 1992 report Juggling Time: How Australian Women Use Time was part of the Hawke government's ''community education campaign aimed at changing attitudes to help ease pressures on workers with family responsibilities''.

It used 1987 Work, Life and Family Survey results and was part of Australia's response to the implementation of International Labour Organisation Workers With Family Responsibilities Convention which the government had ratified in 1990.

Associate Professor at the University of NSW's Social Policy Research Centre Lyn Craig said the ABS had taken a tragic decision, as the survey had provided ''a window into Australian work and family''.

''It allowed us to see how lives are lived in ways that are really important to women,'' she said.

10 comments

  • If the data is genuinely useful, then its false economy to axe the survey. But doing the survey to validate the feelings of women is a stupid justification too. From my observation inside Canberra government departments, a lot of statistics are pushed out into various departments, and then totally misinterpreted, and used in reverse fashion to justify rubbish that was already decided, but now needs "evidence based" documentation to dress up. My guess is that at the end of the day, it won't matter.

    Commenter
    John
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    March 05, 2013, 8:52AM
    • I didn't manage to get past the first sentence. Typical sexism against men as though we have no place in the household. I wonder if the rest of the article had anything interesting to say.
      Sad reporting Emma. Maybe you will learn to provide factual reporting on issues without the typical anti-male sexism we've come to expect from so many writers.

      Commenter
      Dave
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 9:21AM
      • Fully agree Dave. As a stay at home dad who does everything from washing, cleaning, cooking, school transport, tuckshop, sport, etc it annoys me that media and advertising are stuck in the 1950s. And most ads for cooking and cleaning products aren't even subtly aimed at women. They are right in your face about it.

        Commenter
        Mr Mum
        Date and time
        March 05, 2013, 10:46AM
    • Successive governments want to create 'evidence-based policy', yet successive governments cut funding to the ABS - a critical source of evidence in this country (for the academic, community and private sectors too). Good on the ABS for not trying to do more with less - this is telling the government that if you cut too far, you will get what you pay for.

      Commenter
      Jeff
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 9:48AM
      • Axing this survey is a really terrible thing. Now more than ever we NEED to see what our family and home lives are looking like. The decreasing birth rate, the single child families, the increasing role men are playing as "house spouse", the active and joint childcare that is shared between parents, the role of grandparents and other family members in the modern family. The incredible role UNPAID work (which is bloody hard work) plays in our society. This data will shape the lives and decisions of the next generation of parents-to-be (or not-to-be). It is devastating that this data will just be left to slip away.

        Commenter
        Brisbane Babe
        Date and time
        March 05, 2013, 10:17AM
        • I guess this means that the countless hours I've spent mowing the lawn and cleaning the pool don't count, usually whilst my wife is playing tennis or on a golf course.

          Commenter
          kev
          Location
          weston
          Date and time
          March 05, 2013, 10:43AM
          • I fully agree that unpaid domestic work should count as economic work. Then the payer (the parents) can pay GST on it. In addition the payee, the domestic partner (usually the wife), can pay income tax. All this domestic economic work is no different to other economic work, It requires government infrastructure so should be taxed. Subsidies are already provided in terms of tax credits and family allowances. But out of respect to those hard working domestic partners it shoud should be taxed at the normal rate.

            Volunteer work is different. Like a charitable donation it can attract a tax deduction equal to the equivalent rate of tax and hence remain untaxed. Domestic work for your own family is not volunteerism though, it was a choice.

            Any takers? Thought not. Now go grumble about something else.

            Commenter
            StBob
            Date and time
            March 05, 2013, 11:10AM
            • I understand capturing data on volunteer work, house/family work however has no place. My husband and I both work, we also both share looking after our children and share all of the housework. Being a stay at home mum is a lifestyle choice, not a job. Having children is NOT a job.

              Commenter
              bel_c
              Date and time
              March 05, 2013, 1:34PM
              • Although this article is written from the perspective of "women's issue" it is not an adequate portrayal of the need for the collection of such statistics. Men do voluntary work in a whole range of ways, inside and outside the home, but without a means of recognizing shifts in this activity it remains anecdotal to refer to any issues about the changing nature of our society. It is False Economy (title of an upcoming book) to fail to monitor what is happening across all the ages and stages of our lifestyles. While we keep living in a divide-and-rule mentality rather than a division-is-multiplication understanding, we fail in all our basic social relationships. The government should seriously reconsider this important survey.

                Commenter
                Patience Grace
                Date and time
                March 05, 2013, 2:04PM
                • Another aspect of this subject is that the government has now disallowed any tax rebate for a dependent spouse, be they male or female. Why is a government supposedly on the left of centre choosing to make such a large section of the population invisible and outside the recognition of the nations economy? Many 'dependent spouses' contribute not only by the unpaid work that they do but also in allowing a working partner to make a greater economic contribution than they might otherwise be able to do

                  We appear now to have a choice in politics between two major parties who operate on the right or on the far right. I think that there are issues here that are significantly beyond the superficial 'women's issues' and 'men's issues' topics. It is a matter of an entire economic sector having been disenfranchised and rendered invisible.

                  Commenter
                  ArchGreg
                  Date and time
                  March 05, 2013, 10:40PM
                  Comments are now closed
                  Featured advertisers

                  Special offers

                  Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo