ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Women’s Unpaid Work

Measurement and Macro Policy

Neetha N ( is acting director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

Mainstreaming Unpaid Work: Time Use Data in Developing Policies edited by Indira Hirway, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp 430, ₹ 1,195.


Women’s unpaid work burden, a concern since many decades, be it under the framework of economic work or housework or care work has evolved over time. With the inclusion of unpaid work under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework, this issue now has gained global attention. An important point that is often deliberated in all discussions on unpaid work is the absence of reliable statistics and issues of measurement. It is in this context that this collection of essays on measurement and provisioning of time use statistics turns out to be a rich source of reference. Statistics on unpaid work is not collected, and even when it is available, the data fails to capture the varied dimensions of this segment of work due to conceptual and methodological issues and challenges. Many efforts to measure unpaid work across the world have brought out varied experiences, which can surely contribute towards addressing the larger challenges of designing and collecting time use data. However, these experiences are not documented or analysed systematically and it is this gap that this volume is trying to bridge. Further, the analysis of the existing time use data linking it with macroeconomic policy is important for advocacy around time use surveys (TUS) which is a major contribution of the volume.

Concepts and Methods

Apart from the introduction, the book has 11 chapters divided under two broad sections, one part titled “Producing Quality Time Use Statistics: Issues Related to Methodology and Harmonisation of Concepts and Methods” and the other “Analytical Tools for Addressing Critical Concerns.” The first section reviews TUS conducted in select regions in Asia, Latin America and Africa and shows how TUS, which began as small surveys in many countries in the region, have now become full-fledged surveys, though specificities in terms of concepts, methodological approaches and coverage vary across countries. The essays in this section call attention to the fact that statistics on unpaid work is still an issue, despite the progress in TUS. A major challenge highlighted in the volume is the mainstreaming of TUS in the national statistical systems. The second part discusses how time use data could be used to analyse public policies and programmes related to employment, public spending, trade and poverty. These highlight the need to have a fuller and unbiased understanding of relevant policies through a gendered analysis.

The book provides a good overview of the status of TUS across countries, which helps the readers to understand the larger context. Rich insights from different parts of the world on some of the debates that exist in the context of TUS are captured, such as exclusivity (modules versus stand-alone surveys), tools of collection (activity dairy versus listing of tasks/activities), classification of activity status and so on. The essay brings out the diversity in the data collection path followed by different countries, though the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), 2005 has laid out broad outlines. These rich methodological experiences provide important dimensions to comprehend the ongoing discussions on unpaid work in India. With unpaid work figuring in the SDG, TUS is sure to see an expansion across the globe.

However, the tendency to stick to a single data collection method, which the essay on Latin America by Valeria Esquivel, highlights as “path dependency,” is disturbing. Although some fine-tuning of the method happens in all new surveys, the fact that the need to harmonise the data across various years overrides these surveys which is sure to hamper the quality of data in the long run. It also could risk comparative analysis of countries, which are critical for a global understanding of the issue, its dimensions and other specificities.

The variability in the burden of unpaid work across households depending upon multiple factors such as composition of the household, household size and economic status is given due focus in the volume. The value of measuring time use, which helps in the understanding of the distribution of work and its social dimensions, be it age, gender, class, caste/race is now recognised. These data systems have demonstrated the gendered nature of unpaid work and its distribution, highlighting the social and economic issues and its implications, especially in terms of the economic participation of women. The essays go beyond these often-understood dimensions of unpaid work and link the discussion with the nature and specificities of state policies.

Questions of invisibility and undercounting have always been an issue in the measurement of women’s economic work. Indira Hirway clearly demonstrates the usefulness of TUS towards addressing this long-standing concern in the context of developing countries, where there could be an overlapping of unpaid economic work and unpaid housework/care work. The focus of measuring unpaid work through TUS is sometimes framed within discussions around national income accounting, which needs rethinking. This approach has affected not only the measurement aspect of unpaid work, but also the framing and understanding of unpaid work from the perspective of caregivers and the need to recognise, reduce and redistribute such work. This narrow understanding of unpaid work only as a gender issue is taken up in the second section, which is a useful addition to the existing literature. The essay drawing upon the South African TUS by Maria Sagrario Floro and Hitomi Komatsu demonstrates how such surveys are useful in the understanding of unemployment and its various dimensions, including job search where women seem to be disadvantaged due to lack of time arising out of demands for unpaid work.

The remaining essays in the second section frames unpaid work as a macroeconomic issue. Time poverty, an important but less acknowledged issue, is taken up in another essay on Africa, by Omar Ismael Abdourahman. It establishes the link between unpaid household work and the gendered outcomes in education, employment and other fields, which are critical in ensuring gender equality. In the context of a direct relationship between unpaid care burden and allocations for social services, it argues for an increased investment in social services, as it would go a long way in reducing women’s unpaid work burden. “Public Guarantee Programmes” by Ranio Antonopoulos and Kijong Kim has much relevance to the present-day Indian context, though it is based on data from South Africa and the United States. Taking evidences from the essay, an important initiative that could help in addressing the falling work participation rate of women is to design public works programmes/employment guarantee programmes around social care delivery. Reinforcing the importance of public investment in social services, the essay shows that investing in social care programmes through mobilising women would not only address pro-poor growth patterns but also gender inequality. Such programmes will provide economic opportunities to women and liberate women from household care demands, an issue that restricts women’s mobility at large.

Devaluation of Care Work

An important issue is its acceptance of low wages for care work. This not only reinforces women’s status as secondary earners but also contributes to the devaluation of all forms of women’s work, especially paid care work. One of the reasons for the existence of poor wages for domestic work has been this devaluation of care work and the social understanding of the specificity and skill associated with such work as something inherent in all women. The state’s approach to care workers in such programmes can go a long way in challenging and addressing the wage gap between men and women. This is an important issue in the context of women’s work and hence, the need to highlight the provision of decent work conditions in such programmes, if it has to address larger issues of women’s equality. The assumption that not all public expenditure can be gender partitioned is critically examined in another essay, integrating time budgets into gender budgeting. The essay by Lekha Chakraborty, analysing public expenditure spending across water budgets alongside time use data for select states, provides insights into the gendered implications and the need to have gender sensitive water policies.

Questioning the arbitrary division and separation of the economy into productive and reproductive activities, Indira Hirway argues that macroeconomic policies cannot be framed in isolation without taking into account the non-system of national accounts (non-SNA) activities given the interconnections between the two. To understand the link between trade liberalisation and time use of women, she analyses the time use pattern of women home-based workers in the garment industry, garment being an important component of the trade basket, which has seen an expansion in the period of trade liberalisation. The non-recognition of home-based work, reflected in the low wages and working conditions of these workers alongside the demands of unpaid work result in the depletion of human capital over time. This, alongside employment of children, especially girls, is argued to have long-run implications, which need to be taken into account while framing trade policies.

The book, at large, is mostly a documentation of experiences from different countries where broad connections are drawn, often peripherally, in terms of the analysis of dimensions of unpaid work and the relationship between unpaid work and macroeconomic policies. This, to some extent, is understandable given the absence of adequate data for any detailed analysis. However, it is important to highlight the multiple interactions that any macroeconomic policy may have with the larger social structures. This book, though sometimes acknowledge these dimensions, mostly restricts the discussion to the unilateral understanding of the relationship between unpaid work and macro policies, thereby limiting the utility of this volume.

Despite this shortcoming, since there have been little efforts to collate the experiences of various countries and to analyse and disseminate such information in the public domain in a systematic manner, the book becomes an important reference material for a range of stakeholders, including data collecting agencies and policymaking bodies apart from researchers. It can go a long way in streamlining TUS, facilitating informed public debates and help in monitoring and evaluating the efficacy of various policy interventions.


Updated On : 10th Jun, 2019


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