Chronic unemployment and underemployment are the new post COVID-19 realities. Today, almost a million Australians are out of work and forecasts suggest it is going to get worse.
Governments in Australia and elsewhere are scrambling around to create jobs out of thin air while the economy is in recession. This ought not be such an impossible task as the economy already has much work which could be recognised, and paid.
Unpaid care work in Australia contributes to about 20 per cent of the economy, but it is unpaid and largely undertaken by women. This includes volunteering, looking after the elderly and child raising. Of this care work, unpaid childcare is the biggest industry in Australia - around three times bigger than the financial industries sector, construction, manufacturing or mining (Australia's four biggest formal industries).
This essential work that society and the economy rely on, is mostly carried out by women. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency finds that despite women and men undertaking about the same amount of total work (paid and unpaid) per week, women spend 64.4 per cent of these hours doing unpaid work such as care. For the typical Australian man, it's less than 36 per cent.
And it is this stigma that has provided a cover for the Australian government to launch its punitive ParentsNext program. ParentsNext was first piloted in 2016, and expanded in 2018 to over 68,000 people across Australia - 96 per cent of whom are women. People on ParentsNext are expected to fulfil activities that have been widely condemned as being a waste of time and anything but getting women "job ready". Failure to attend activities or to self-report results in the suspension of their parenting payments, which is often their only source of income.
ParentsNext assumes that women aren't already working, which overlooks the care work they do. Many women we interviewed reported doing between 18-24hrs of unpaid care per day, including not just looking after their children but also other productive activities such as looking after the elderly, developing arts and craft, community gardening, or running women's support groups.
Instead of stigmatising the women on ParentsNext, we should be holding their work up as a leading example of a caring post COVID-19 economy. Going back to the Wages for Housework campaigns starting in Italy in the 1970s, it has been long argued by feminists that care work should be not only recognised as essential to the economy, but also paid.
Care work could and should also be distributed so it can be undertaken by all. Men who undertake care work would also then be recognised and remunerated for it.
Care is essential to all life - we need it, we feel it, we desire it and none of us can live without it. It underpins so much of our lives - from reproductive and affective or emotional work, to caring for the elderly, for community and for ecology. Care is work that keeps us all going, especially in these COVID-19 times.
It just needs to be financially supported and redistributed for all to undertake. Recognition of this work could be through a Liveable Income Guarantee paid at the level of the aged pension, along with other support payments such as rental assistance, disability support, and family benefit payments. This liveable income guarantee won't ever cover the value of such work, but it would at least provide economic security and allow people to do care work without persecution.
Recognising and supporting care work is a way forward in these difficult and insecure times.
- Dr Elise Klein is a senior lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU; and Andi Sebastian is on the Council for Single Mothers and their Children.