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. 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.