Women throughout the world bear major responsibilities for unpaid work, which includes housework and taking care of people at home and in communities for no explicit monetary reward. Unpaid work is essential to the development of human capabilities and well-being. However, due to time constraints, unpaid work limits women’s ability to participate equally with men in the labour market and reduces the time available to them for self-care, human capital investment, socializing with other people, political participation and relaxation. Despite its important implications for well-being and gender equality, unpaid work is not counted in conventional income and labour force statistics. The provision of household and care services, viewed as “the natural duty of women”, is commonly taken for granted in policy making.
The authors take a close look at unpaid work using data from China’s first large-scale time use survey (TUS) conducted in 2008. They document the gender patterns of time allocation over three activities: paid work, unpaid work and non-work activity (self-care and leisure). In China, as in many other countries, men spent more hours on paid work than women while women spent more hours on unpaid work than men. When the amount of time spent on paid and unpaid work was added together, women were found to have spent many more hours working than men did.
The authors next apply a seemingly unrelated regression (SUR) technique to estimate the trade-off between paid work, unpaid work and non-work activity. The estimates show consistently that almost all the changes associated with life events and economic situations that are considered in this study contribute to a widening of the female-male difference in total work time and a reduction in the time for self-care and leisure that is available to women relative to the time available to men. This finding suggests that women’s propensity to trade off paid work for unpaid work is smaller than men’s in Chinese society. Women are, however, not a homogeneous group; those who are more educated, come from families with higher income and receive higher wages have greater time autonomy.
Last, the authors apply five methods to assign a monetary value to unpaid work. Depending on the method used, the value assigned to unpaid work varies from 25 to 32 per cent of China’s official GDP, from 52 to 66 per cent of final consumption and from 63 to 80 per cent of the gross products of the tertiary industry. These estimates show that unpaid work represents a huge contribution to national economic well-being.
The analysis reveals the tension between paid and unpaid work in China’s new market economy. While both paid and unpaid work are essential to national well-being, as the analysis shows, the overriding concern of the Chinese government in the post-reform period has been to improve the productivity of paid work and maximize growth of per capita GDP, assuming that the provision of domestic and care services will adjust itself accordingly. Consequently, market reforms have severely eroded the support and protection of both the government and employers for women’s reproductive roles, exacerbating the work-family conflicts that Chinese women face. This development strategy is unfair to women and is also unsustainable in the long run. Hence, we call for greater policy attention to supporting the reproductive economy to ensure that the socially adequate supply of domestic and care services can be provided in a more gender-equitable manner.
Xiao-Yuan Dong is Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Winnipeg, Canada. Xinli An is at the Department of Social, Science and Technology Statistics, National Bureau of Statistics of China, Beijing, China.
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