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Canadian Census Gives Credit for Unpaid Work

Women's dish-towel campaign

When Carol Lees came to Question No. 30 on the 1991 Canadian national census form, she stopped short. In effect, it asked: "How many hours of work have you done in the past week, excluding housework and family care?"

As a stay-at-home mother who cooked and cleaned for three children and a husband, "I was highly offended that I was not able to indicate I had done any work at all," and thus was not considered part of the labor force.

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So she withheld her forms. The next thing Mrs. Lees knew, she was threatened with prosecution. But she stuck to her convictions, writing to census officials and picketing in her home town of Saskatoon, Sasketchewan.

To her delight, her protest spread. Women across Canada threw down their dish towels, saying, "Count us in!" It was their threatened boycott of the next census that finally got the government to sit up and listen.

As a result, the 1996 Canadian census, on May 14, will include questions on unpaid work - taking into consideration everything from bathing children and cutting grass, to caring for seniors and counseling teens. (See box below.)

Economists and politicians in England, New Zealand, and the United States have begun to examine the issue of unpaid work in the home, which falls chiefly to women. In the US, a bill to assign a dollar value to unpaid work and include it in the gross national product (GNP) was last introduced in 1993 by Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins (D) of Michigan, but subsequently fizzled.

France and Norway now include unpaid work in certain GNP estimates, and other countries are studying the topic. At the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing last fall, the commitment to measurement and valuation of women's unpaid work became part of the official "Platform for Action" document.

Canada, however, is the first country in the so called Group of Seven most industrialized nations to attempt a detailed measurement of unpaid work through the census.

Without this public accounting, "we're left out of the government record, and consequently, left out of public policy debate," Lees says in an interview. Canada is experiencing cutbacks and restructuring in the area of day care, for instance.

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"The vast amount of child care is done informally in the home," she explains, "but we're not even part of the discussion."

Even in institutional elder care, recent cutbacks have resulted in a "shift from paid to unpaid labor caring for the elderly," Lees says. "But what consultation with unpaid workers has the government done? None! This is not to argue for or against [the cuts], but to say that there is a large labor force out here that has no voice."

Why is that voice missing? Lees and other women activists say the reason is that mothering and "women's work" is generally not seen as "work" by society - even by many women themselves.

Labor of love?

Rather, such work is seen solely as a function of being a woman, or only as a matter of "love, responsibility, or altruism," says Evelyn Drescher, a mother of two and a member of an advocacy group called Mothers Are Women in Ottawa.

"We acknowledge that certain tasks are work - cleaning the toilets, taking out the garbage," she says, "but then we also forget the management component - the household planning and budgeting." Then, too, there is the additional work of tending to the emotional needs of family members, she says.

A group of women in Toronto currently staying home with their children gathered recently to hear Mrs. Drescher speak. Several came away saying it was a message they had long understood but which has rarely been articulated.

"I'm glad to see there are organizations, not only promoting the new census questions, but also getting us to think about what we do," says Pam Martin, mother of a 20-month-old. "It really is a 24-hour on-call type of work."

Under-appreciated work

Mrs. Martin used to work in magazine production before she had her daughter. "I certainly didn't fully appreciate it [caring for children] until I experienced it."

Another mother at the meeting, Patty McGlone, says she remembers her former boss's comment when she stopped by at the office with her new baby for a visit.

"He said, 'So, what do you do all day, read books?' And he wasn't joking. He had absolutely no understanding of what women who stay home do," says Mrs. McGlone, who now has a three- and a five-year old.

Measuring the quantity of unpaid work on the census is but the first step in the "kitchen-table revolution," Lees and Drescher say. National statistics will provide a tool to lobby for increased rights and benefits, such as pensions.

Presently, Canadian women who spend time at home to raise children are not directly eligible for private or government pension plans, because the plans require earned income.

A husband can obtain a private, spousal plan for his wife, provided he is willing to sacrifice a portion of what he could save toward his own retirement.

With the new census figures, "the government is going to be forced to account for these workers and recognize that they are contributing to society and have a right to government programs," says Lees, who now heads up the Canadian Alliance for Home Managers in Saskatoon.

Statistics Canada, the accounting arm of the federal government, estimated from a limited survey last year that Canadians spent 25 billion hours a year on unpaid chores.

It calculated that if they had been paid for the work, they would have collectively earned $234 billion (Canadian; US $171 billion). Women do two-thirds of that work, or $152.3 billion (Canadian, US $111 billion) worth a year, it said.

Glorifying housework

Not everyone in the women's movement agrees with Lees's philosophy. Some see lobbying for the rights of stay-at-home mothers as a backward step that glorifies housework, or glorifies traditional choices.

"I don't consider cleaning toilets glorious work," Lees counters, "but I say that we must honor and respect the work of all women - and not adopt the patriarchal system of only valuing paid work."

Drescher concurs. "This has nothing to do with the political values of traditional choices. It has to do with what we feel is best for our own children at this time in our lives" and is not meant to slight the choices other mothers make to work full-time outside the home, she says. "We support choice for all women."

What the 1996 Census Will Ask

In 1996, the Census of Population in Canada will ask about unpaid work for the first time:

Last week, how many hours did this person spend doing the following activities?

a) Doing unpaid housework, yard work, or home maintenance for members of this household, or others. Some examples include: preparing meals, doing laundry, household planning, shopping and cutting grass.

[ ] None

[ ] Less than 5 hours

[ ] 5 to 14 hours

[ ] 15 to 29 hours

[ ] 30 to 59 hours

[ ] 60 hours or more

b) Looking after one or more of this person's own children, or the children of others, without pay. Some examples include: bathing or playing with young children, driving children to sports activities, helping them with homework, and talking with teens about their problems.

[ ] None

[ ] Less than 5 hours

[ ] 5 to 14 hours

[ ] 15 to 29 hours

[ ] 30 to 59 hours

[ ] 60 hours or more

c) Providing unpaid care or assistance to one or more seniors. Some examples include: providing personal care to a senior family member, visiting seniors, talking with them on the telephone, and helping them with shopping, banking or with taking medication.

[ ] None

[ ] less than 5 hours

[ ] 5 to 9 hours

[ ] 10 hours or more

Source: Statistics Canada

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