Cooking the Books: Unpaid Work

‘British people do more than £1tn of housework each year – unpaid’, read the headline in the Guardian (3 October) reporting on a study by the Office for National Statistics, and went on: ‘Unpaid household work, such as looking after children, doing laundry and cooking, is worth £1.24tn per year.’

Many, including socialists, have pointed out that, in only measuring paid work, GDP omits whole swathes of work as the exercise of mental and physical energy. Not all work is employment.

The ONS arrived at its figure by calculating what people would have to pay if they got someone to do the work, not just of looking after the children, cooking and doing the laundry, but also of cleaning, repairing and maintaining the home (and garden), caring for an adult at home, and driving to and from work, the supermarket and school. Also included was voluntary activity outside the home.

To make the figures more understandable to the general public, the ONS divided the total figure of £1.24 trillion by the total UK population of some 65.7 million, to arrive at the figure of £18,932 literally per every person including children. This can be broken down by activity. Perhaps surprisingly the largest is transport at £5459 (29 percent). Next is child care at £5358 (28 percent). housing services (cleaning, etc) is £3037 (16 percent); food preparation £2400 (13 percent), laundering £1355 (7 percent), adult care £898 and voluntary activity £365.

The Times reported the survey under the headline ‘Washing Up? That’ll be £12,000, darling’, with this as what a ‘stay-at-home spouse’ could claim for household chores. But it is not just women who do this unpaid work as is obvious in the case of people living on their own; all the work will be done by them, whether a man or a woman.

Apart from adult care and voluntary activity outside the home, the work covered by the ONS survey is work in connection with recreating the mental and physical energies people sell to their employer and with bringing up a future generation of wage workers. This means that, strictly speaking, it is not really unpaid. The work itself is unpaid, but not what the person doing the work has to consume to be in a position to do it. This has to be paid for, and is out of wages or state payments such as child benefit and carer’s allowance. This is most obvious in the case of the stay-at-home partner; the food, clothes, etc they consume has to be paid for out of the wage of the working partner. The same applies to everyone carrying out the unpaid work, including those in paid work. Provision for them to create the mental and physical energy to carry out the unpaid work is included in wages.

This brings out the fallacy of the ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign. If the Times’ £12,000 were paid to the stay-at-home partner then the working partner’s wage would come to be reduced by the same amount. In fact if all this work were paid then wages would tend towards 16.2 percent of their current level as the percentage of consumer spending that the ONS says ‘was spent on direct costs for providing unpaid work services, mainly spent on fuel, renting and food.’ This means that in the ONS’s figure there’s double-counting with the greater part of people’s income from work and state payments. This does not make the statistics invalid or useless. They are interesting in revealing what goes into recreating labour-power – which when used by capitalist employers provides them with the unpaid labour that is the source of their profits.