Volunteers keep Australia moving, but their unpaid work won't be explored in the Census

Volunteers keep Australia moving, but their unpaid work won’t be explored in the Census


Households across the country will be filling out their 2021 Census on Tuesday, but for many Australians who spend chunks of their time volunteering, it will not ask details about the work they do.

The census, Australia’s largest national survey, asks one question about whether individuals volunteer or not, but it does not delve into the number of hours spent volunteering and what this work entails.

Speaking to Women’s Agenda, Angela Williamson said she has been part of the unpaid volunteer workforce for around 30 years and currently works, on average, 15-20 hours a week in a volunteer capacity.

Angela says it’s a shame the census does not do the sums on the work volunteers do, because it is often vital to keeping large sections of society moving.

Based on data from Volunteering Australia, men and women seem to volunteer at similar rates, but women are more likely to have volunteered for a period of more than ten years. The work volunteers do can be physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, and often it is done for years on end with little or no recognition.

Over 30 years, Angela has sustained volunteer work as a major part of her life. From community campaigning, delivering Meals on Wheels, organising ANZAC and Remembrance Day ceremonies, organising Neighbourhood Watch areas, driving leukaemia patients from their homes to their regular appointments, doing the school tuck-shop, and other roles.

“I’d average 15-20 hours a week volunteering. Of the women I interact with, whilst the voluntary roles they do are different from mine, many do much the same or more in hours,” she said.

“I am in awe of the work some do in areas that would stump me – the mentally demanding roles, helping people, such as Lifeline. Good friends who do Bushcare work. All volunteers.”

Angela’s disappointed the census does not do the economic sums on what the quantum of volunteering means in this country.

It’s a problem that signifies that value – or lack of value – Australia places on unpaid work and those who spend their time doing it. And it bypasses the economic significance of this work.

But the lack of focus on data around volunteering in Australia is nothing new. We no longer rely on Time Use Surveys that allowed individuals to log how they spend their time, including the amount of paid and unpaid work they do. These surveys cover things like childcare, elder care, and housework, but also acknowledge unpaid volunteer work – much of which is done in an informal capacity.

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