"If your Mom didn't take care of you [when you were a child], would you be able to go to work?"
Those are the words of trade union activist, graduate student, and single mother Laurel O'Gorman. They are her way of neatly capturing the idea that without the massive amounts of unpaid work done in the home, primarily by women, capitalism would grind to a halt.
And through the neoliberal changes of the last thirty years — paid work that has become more precarious and more poorly paid, governments that have radically scaled back support for people in need, different groups of workers increasingly subjected to different rules — the burdens of unpaid work have increased significantly. Yet many unions and community groups are still in the early stages of figuring out how to recognize and respond to the central importance of unpaid caring and domestic labour.
Women's Work and Invisibility
"Women's labour is often the most exploited," according to Sharmeen Khan, an organizer and spokesperson for the Toronto Community Mobilization Network that put together much of the infrastructure that groups used for protesting the G20 summit in June. Pressure that gives women fewer options other than to engage in work that is underpaid or unpaid "is a strategic way of maintaining profit for a few… The unpaid labour that is often invisible is strategic in that."
The invisibility Khan refers to shows up even in how many of us talk about what we do, where the word "work" is so often used to refer only to what we are paid to do. Caring for children and older adults, preparing food, cleaning, doing laundry, getting groceries, and the dozens of other tasks that make life possible get relegated to an assumed but undefined space that not only ignores their importance but ensures that they are often not seen as work at all. The invisibility when unwaged tends to correspond with poor pay and low status when this kind of work is done for a wage.
According to researchers Leah Vosko and Lisa Clark, despite modest increases in the proportion of such work done by men over the preceding decades, the time devoted to unpaid work by working age men and women still differed considerably in Canada in 2005. Men performed, on average, 3.5 hours a day of unpaid work, compared to 7.3 hours for women. In households with a child under age six, the averages shifted to 6.1 hours for men and 12.6 hours for women.
This invisibility has many expressions in public policy as well. For instance, in the years that O'Gorman's time was dominated by unpaid work in her home, her then-partner was working at a trade. Both are now pursuing further education — he qualifies to access grant funding under a government "second career" program because his earlier work was waged, but she is able to access education only through taking on debt because her earlier work was unpaid. She said, "In my life, this is the most visible example of how unpaid work doesn't matter and everything is about waged work…because what I was doing wasn't 'work.'"
Professor Pat Armstrong is a political economist who teaches at York University in Toronto, Ontario, who has done research on women's work for more than forty years, most recently with a focus on healthcare. She said that the "most obvious" way neoliberalism has increased pressure to engage in unpaid work in Canada is "in cutbacks of what we call the welfare state." This refers to the array of social programs enacted mostly after the Second World War which provide services in ways that socialize the costs and which support people living in need. Particularly since the mid-1990s in Canada, the welfare state has been under attack by business lobbies and many governments.
She says that in the healthcare sector, this means people are sent home from hospital "sicker and quicker" — less care is provided by nurses and doctors, and now "most of that care is provided unpaid in the home…mostly by women." The limited public dollars for homecare services are also now more often taken up caring for people who have been discharged from acute care hospitals so there are fewer resources to care for frail and elderly people (who are most often women) so it is generally family (again, mostly women) who have little choice but to take on that work.
Armstrong adds that it is evident from how governments have talked about the issue that this is not an unforseen side-effect. Rather, "it is clearly part of the current healthcare strategies to do as much as possible by unpaid labour."
Khan points out how neoliberal changes have affected different groups of women in different ways. For instance, as poverty has increased and accessibility of services related to care provision has decreased, more and more poor women in Canada have simply had no good options. "A lot of the women who are in poverty do work hard, do work all the time" both in low-wage jobs and at unwaged work, but "rather than the state intervening to provide affordable childcare, the state will intervene only when there is neglect."
In contrast, a response to this burden by some affluent households is to hire other women to perform domestic and caring labour, often poor and working-class women of colour brought to Canada as part of the Live-in Caregiver Program. This program subjects these women to much more oppressive rules for work than Canadian citizens have to face, including having to live with their employer, limited access to social services, restrictions on basic employment rights and on pursuing other work, and the threat of deportation if they demand better treatment. This is part of the "labour apartheid" that is the "essence of neoliberalism," according to Khan. She added, "The lack of childcare support in this country has normalized this experience of hardship."
Many public sector unions, like the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), have some awareness of the issue and respond by both political and workplace efforts to strengthen the welfare state. The idea is that high quality, accessible, not-for-profit services would give communities more options for meeting caring needs. As well, fighting to transform the low pay and precarious, casual character of caring work when it is waged would help to increase its overall status, including when it is unwaged.
CUPE also enacts measures to reduce barriers to participation by its own members who might face burdens from unpaid caring and domestic labour, such as funding childcare during union events. O'Gorman, who is the president of the newly formed CUPE Local 5011, which represents graduate teaching assistants at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, said, "Overall, I've found that CUPE has really worked on that," and cited numerous examples of how it has facilitated her participation. Still, she also cited other instances where barriers remain, and both in the position of her local as it goes into bargaining and her experience so far of processes within the union beyond the local level, the gendered impacts of unpaid domestic labour have not been a major focus of attention.
Armstrong, who has worked extensively with unions and community groups over the years, confirms that unions have some awareness of the issue and could be an important force in addressing it, "but I don't think it's at the top of their agenda, partly because they are so squeezed" by the many neoliberal attacks on the labour movement.
Progressive and radical "do-it-yourself" alternatives that seek to avoid reliance on the welfare state through local community-based initiatives have at times advanced some interesting co-operative models. However, these sorts of experiments are rare in Canada, and they often do not address the gendered burden of unpaid labour or the ways in which many poor and working-class women already do incredible levels of waged and unwaged work.
Even in the most visible mobilization against neoliberalism in recent years in Canada — the protests against the recent G20 summit in Toronto — this issue was largely absent. Though gender justice was one of the key themes of the organizing, and Khan said that issues of women's work were definitely present in the initial discussions she was part of, it mostly did not show up in what both mainstream and activist publics saw in June.
She cited a number of reasons for this. One was the general mainstream media disinterest in the issues motivating dissent against the G20, and their nearly exclusive focus on protest tactics. In addition, she related it to "the weakness of the women's movement right now."
However, she also said that after the Harper government advanced an agenda for maternal health in developing countries that excluded funding for abortion services (and, initially, contraception as well), many of the larger organizations involved in protesting the G20, including labour and women's groups, focused their gender justice-related energies almost exclusively around a version of reproductive choice wrapped in "a very simplistic analysis" and then "kind of wanted to shut out any other narrative, like around unpaid reproductive labour."
Khan said choice "is important for sure, but there was a complete lack of analysis about what the G20, the IMF, the WTO do to women's lives." Through their role in reorganizing work and in imposing a host of other changes, she sees these neoliberal institutions in their entirety and not just individual policies as incredibly harmful to women around the world. She would have liked to have seen "more connections to different women's movements in different parts of the world to make our analysis more concrete about how the G20 affects different groups of women."
However movement organizations in Canada take up questions of unpaid caring and domestic labour, organizer John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (which he admits has also not directly addressed the question) thinks it is crucial that they do so.
"When a society starts to impose on women and demand they perform for free labour that social service networks have performed, there will be a period of adjustment in which people will do what they need to do to get by," he said. However, "there are only so many hours you can cut out of your sleep, only so much effort you can put in before it becomes unendurable." For this reason, he thinks it is imperative that these issues "find political expression in the near future."