My solution to solving the unpaid work problem | Women's Agenda

My solution to solving the unpaid work problem

I want to talk about how we could all benefit from getting a UBI. No, a UBI is not a contraceptive device or a nasty medical condition. You may have heard that it is currently being piloted in progressive western democracies including Finland, the Netherlands, Scotland and Canada. And in the wake of the Centrelink debt recovery debacle, it is now time for Australia to consider trialing a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Campaigners for an unconditional monthly income argue this would not constitute money for nothing, since over 50% of work is currently unpaid – taking the form of care work.  This work is still most typically carried out by women and often compels economic dependency on men, thus constituting systemic discrimination and creating conditions conducive to domestic violence and exploitation.

Although a UBI was defeated in a Swiss referendum in June last year, the key concern was the large scale immigration it would attract. It is a sad thing when we decide against improving our own lives out of fear that we may have to share our good fortune with others.

Certainly a global solution would be ideal, but until then a UBI could save Australia a great deal of wasted time and money in policing welfare payments and misguided debt recovery processes. It might also be the next step needed to move things forward to achieve gender equity, since other efforts appear to have stalled.

Although “equal pay for equal work” was formally awarded in 1972, the gender pay gap has continued to hover around 17% for the next four decades, favouring men in every single industry.  What is increasingly clear is that equal treatment does not always result in equity. Ignoring the real differences between men and women has resulted in unfairness by perpetuating a workforce designed to favour men and devaluing the reproductive role and care work traditionally carried out, and still prioritized, by the majority of women.

Care work continues to be either unpaid, or under-paid, with its economic value massively discounted or disregarded altogether. Senator Leyonhjelm’s recent comments that summarized the role of childcare workers as merely “wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other” are symptomatic of a societal undervaluing of this work.

Aside from this systemic devaluing of the relationship oriented work traditionally favoured by women, there are also fewer women in senior positions across all industries. While much has been made of women’s reticence in seeking promotion and their failure to “lean in”, this also reflects women’s desire for shorter and more flexible hours when they are juggling family responsibilities.

As 46% of women are employed part-time, the “Mummy Tax” goes a long way to explaining the continuing gender pay gap. Unfortunately, there is a widespread perception that a part-time work commitment is incompatible with taking on the greater responsibility required in senior roles. Needless to say women who have no family responsibilities receive far closer to equal pay.

Since February 2016 MPs can bring their babies into the Federal House of Representatives and breastfeed. However, there are very few other workplaces that allow mothers to have their babies with them and to take regular breaks for breastfeeding. Unsurprisingly, working mums are still less likely to breastfeed than non-working mums.

It is also worth noting that most childcare is typically limited in its availability and offers inflexible hours which fall short of the needs of many women who are serious about securing a promotion to a more senior role. Until we have free childcare facilities that offer laundry and meal services and extended hours, as well as after-school care that facilitate attendance at extra-curricular activities and working hours and leave entitlements that are compatible with school holidays, we cannot pretend that there is anything equal about women’s participation and opportunities in the workforce.

When are we going to provide women with reasonable choices, rather than forcing them to decide between prematurely giving up breastfeeding and outsourcing their parenting or sacrificing their own career, self-esteem and financial independence? While formal childcare provides many women with the option of returning to work rapidly, it comes at a high cost – which is not just financial. A UBI would remove the arbitrary compulsion to return to work when a child is 12 months old, providing parents with real choice about how they raise their children. It would also remove the stigma that currently attaches to single mothers on welfare payments and free many women from financial dependency on a man.

But it is not just parents who would benefit from a UBI. Much of the work in our community currently goes unpaid, or severely underpaid, including:

·       Care of the elderly & disabled

·       Emergency services (eg: SES, volunteer fire brigade, army reserve, surf life savers)

·       Education services (home schooling, P&C activity, helping in class etc)

·       Community services (volunteer work for a charity)

·       Business start-up activity

·       Sporting activity (amateur sport, children’s team coaches etc)

·       Services to art & culture (artists, writers, musicians etc)

·       Political organising & activism

·       Research or study

Since it has been predicted that many traditional jobs are set to be lost following increasing automation over the next 20 years, it makes good economic sense to begin implementing a UBI now. But how, I hear you ask, can we pay for this? Read Part 2 for a discussion of the many savings created by introducing a UBI that could fund its cost.

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