Research from ANU has highlighted the immense unpaid caring labour that Indigenous women do. It is time that value was acknowledged.

Cooking and cleaning, taking care of children and the elderly — these are some of the unpaid caring tasks stereotypically expected of women.

In Australia, The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) estimates the monetary value of all unpaid care work, carried out by all genders, is equivalent to $650.1 billion or about 50.6 percent of Australia’s GDP.  

But women do the majority of this work — the Australian Bureau of Statistics data says men spend over an hour less on these activities per day on average. Internationally, UN Women estimates that women carry out at least two-and-a-half times more unpaid caring work than men.

While these figures have drawn attention to the way we (under)value caring work, the fact that Indigenous women do more unpaid care than any other group has received less attention.

That’s why research led by a team at The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Queensland has put a dollar figure to Indigenous women’s work.

According to this research, the economic value of this work is between $223.01 and $457.39 per day, based on the reported time spent on these activities. This is the equivalent of an estimated annual salary of between $81,175.64 and $118,921.40.

Reconceptualising labour and care

The ANU research builds on the ground-breaking Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Project led by Dr June Oscar.

Dr Oscar’s work originated at the Australian Human Rights Commission, and is continuing at the newly opened Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute at ANU.

Dr June Oscar on the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Project. Video: Australian Human Rights Commission.

“Dr Oscar’s work was pioneering in understanding how women conceptualise care, but also in understanding the enormous extent of care work Indigenous women were doing,” Associate Professor Elise Klein from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, and co-lead of the research team, says.

“One of the things that women in our research made clear is how limiting non-Indigenous and often liberal, Western, feminist ideas of care can be — especially when these are universalised through policy.

“For Indigenous women, it’s not just the care of people that is important, but also a much more expansive and deep conception of care, including care of country and care of culture and languages.”

The cost of colonialism

Much of the extra unpaid caring work Indigenous women spoke about to the research team related to addressing the ongoing impacts of colonialism and providing care to communities in the face of state institutions.

Examples included trying to find ways to bring children back to community, supporting friends and relatives in interactions with the often-hostile mainstream service system, having to deal with the judicial system, as well as attending to the extraordinary levels of intergenerational trauma that continue to impact communities today.

“Women need to support people and communities through high rates of illness, disability, and suicide — all of these stem from issues of historic and ongoing colonisation,” Klein says.

For Indigenous women, unpaid care work includes managing the ongoing impacts of colonisation. Photo: Stephen Dwyer /Alamy Stock Photo

“Indigenous women and men take on the work of resistance, survival, or revival against a colonial state — and care work is a huge part of that and contributes to their unpaid workload — in a way that non-Indigenous people do not.”

Care as strength

The research argues there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we support Indigenous care, echoing the Wiyi Tani U Thangani Project.

“In mainstream policy, care is often talked of as a burden — something you’ve got to get someone else to do to free up time for people to enter into the paid labour market,” Klein says.

“That approach creates tension when care is valued and seen as a central aspect of life. The policy idea to deter people from care and to push people into paid work, can overlook and undervalue the extraordinary work that Indigenous women are doing in community.

“We see this with the social security system, where people receiving unemployment benefits while caring for people and community are passed off as unproductive, unemployed and are punished through sanctions and work for the dole.

“The system assumes they are not working, but they are — it’s unpaid work”.

By not valuing or compensating the unpaid caring labour that Indigenous women are already doing, many women the researchers spoke to were living below the poverty line.

“You’re punished for doing that work because paid work is seen as supreme. A lot of the women involved in the research were leaders in the community and yet they were faced with forms of poverty and material deprivation — and that’s policy induced,” Klein says. 

“Often women were limited in the paid work they were able to do because of the large unpaid care role they played,” adds Janet Hunt, co-lead of the research team and an Honorary Associate Professor at the ANU Centre for Indigenous Policy Research.

“The Albanese government recently launched a policy focus on the care economy, but the care they speak of is based on a very narrow idea of what the care economy is, and fails to encompass the broader Indigenous care economy” Klein says.

“Women in our research suggested many ways in which policy can be supportive — one major view was that women should be paid for their care work.

“Ultimately, there needs to be a shift towards reparations to pay some of the debts that are owed to Indigenous women for the huge amount of work that they have always done and continue to do in the face of Australia’s unfinished colonial business.”

Top image: Close up of Indigenous woman holding eucalyptus for a smoking ceremony. Photo: Elena Pochesneva/shutterstock.com

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