Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Unpaid work invisible and undervalued

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Stay-at-home mums are an endangered species these days. I was one once and even then it was hard work explaining why it made more sense for me to look after my brood of three than work (largely, it seemed, so I could pay someone else to look after my children).

It's possible that I was just being a shirker, but even if I'd wanted to run myself ragged for the sake of GDP growth and some greater economic good, the numbers didn't add up.

Journalism, though very handy in later years for working from home, wasn't exactly at the right end of the salary scale for a nanny, or fulltime childcare for three.

The only time I could afford to work was when my mother was able to look after my children.

It was hard work, too, not least because it was so mundane and unglamorous compared with my friends' jobs. But I had some strange idea that I was better for my children than a paid stranger, however well-meaning.

Once when I whined to a friend about how worthless and undervalued I felt, he asked me what I thought I could be doing that would be more worthwhile than raising my children.

(My answer was "nothing", but who knows what I would have said if I'd been on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer.)

These days the idea of staying at home to look after young children seems increasingly old-fashioned and indulgent.

Some mothers (I imagine most) work because of economic necessity, but I've had more than a few women confess to me that they needed to work for their own sanity.

The mothers I know who are resisting that trend, despite the personal and economic costs, find themselves swimming against a tide that is increasingly unsympathetic, even dismissive of the role they play in raising and supporting their children.

In every case I know of, their families would be worse off if they went to work, even though their children are already at school, and paid employment would enable them to pay off a few more bills.

Considering that many of them also look after elderly parents or disabled family members and do other voluntary work, the wider community would also lose out.

It is an international problem. As the New York Times reported last week, budget cuts in schools, for example, have heightened the need for more volunteer help just as parents have less and less time to give.

The unpaid work that would have been done by stay-at-home mothers is now falling on over-burdened working mothers, who are starting to "say NO to volunteering".

The importance of love's labours seems to be lost on the well-paid members of the Welfare Working Group.

Even as unemployment remains stubbornly high and jobs stay out of reach for those who want and need to work, it seems fixated on "the importance of paid work to wellbeing". Only paid work counts for beneficiaries; it is the panacea to poverty and so-called welfare dependency, the only respectable route to community engagement and well-being.

Auckland University economist Susan St John points out that "paid work" is mentioned 400 times in the working group's 120-page options paper, which the public is being asked to respond to before Christmas; "inclusion" isn't mentioned once.

That's something else Australia does better than us. In Australia, says St John, "the discourse does not see just 'any job' as desirable and the emphasis is on the need for social investment of all kinds. It is a discourse that also recognises the value of care".

Although paid work is regarded as important for material wellbeing, it's seen as just one aspect of social inclusion.

In New Zealand, paid work (no matter how badly paid or insecure) dominates the conversation, while unpaid work remains invisible and undervalued. Yet, as Professor Ruth Lister, a social policy expert from the UK, told a Melbourne conference recently, "We all need care at some stage of our lives, and care involves time-consuming work that is all too often hidden and ignored. What does it say about a society that accords so much less value to caring for young children or older and frail people than trading in derivatives or hosting a chat show?"

Paul Smyth, a professor of social policy at Melbourne University, writes that "the reframing of Australian social policy around concepts like 'social investment' and 'the inclusive society' sets Australia starkly apart from a country like New Zealand which is currently immersed in the kind of 'welfare war' which we experienced back at the turn of the century".

The Welfare Working Group is already talking social investment, warning of "the lifetime costs" of not investing in childcare, and training and education for sole mothers. But it doesn't go far enough. With its narrow focus on paid work rather than care, it continues to miss the bigger picture.

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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