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The politics of domestic labour



In Australia, caregiving and domestic labour are typically considered women's work. As the most recent HILDA survey shows, women continue to do more housework and childcare than men, regardless of their domestic arrangement. It also showed that women are more likely to work part-time when they have children, while men continue to work as they did before.

Women's Work by Megan K. StackThe effects of this disparity are well documented: in the long run, women who take time out from work to care for kids lose out in terms of both financial security and career progression. 

But it isn't just mothers, wives and partners who bear the burden of domestic labour. Many households outsource domestic labour to nannies, housekeepers and cleaners. These workers are part of a vast global industry that employs 100 million people around the world. They are usually women from poor backgrounds who are rarely paid well for their labour. 

In Australia, where caregiving and housework are undervalued, childcare workers with a Certificate III qualification earn around $21 an hour — half the average wage — while underpayment of nannies is rife. In one extreme case, the Fair Work Ombudsman accused a Sydney couple of paying their nanny just $2.33 an hour. 

Au pairs fare little better. A 2018 report, Cultural Exchange or Cheap Housekeeper? Findings of a National Survey of Au Pairs in Australia, found that the vast majority of au pairs — 97 per cent of participants — were women, while 67 per cent were 23 years old or younger. Taking into account accommodation and board, the average hourly wage they received was $17.10, more than two dollars below the minimum wage for permanent workers. Almost one in three respondents worked more than 40 hours a week. Alarmingly, a third of participants reported exploitative working conditions.

As Megan K. Stack writes in her book Women's Work, it's a model of women's emancipation that depends on a permanent underclass of impoverished women.

Stack's experience of new motherhood is one that is familiar to most working mothers. Before the baby, she assumed that both her and her husband's lives would change in similar ways. She soon found, however, that while the new baby upended her daily routine, her husband 'slipped easily back into his old life'. The 'cold reality' of motherhood, she learned, is 'ceaseless work that has gobbled up our energy and stamina ... for generations.'


"Relying on disadvantaged women to step in to take on the domestic load is not an equitable solution to this intractable problem."


The solution for Stack and her husband, who lived in China and then India, was to hire a series of nannies and housekeepers. These women were indispensable to the household and Stack was acutely dependent on them to allow her time to do her work. But it's a model that she ultimately rejects as a 'jerry-rigged, flaw-riddled compromise that will never live up to its promise of upward mobility for one woman and personalised childcare for another'.

Women need to work. It's disingenuous to frame the issue of female employment as a matter of choice, says Stack, in Australia to discuss Women's Work. 'Most families in the US need two salaries,' she says. 'It's a survival question.'

Dual-income households are also the norm in Australia, where both parents work in 61 per cent of couples with children. 'We're in a strange in-between, where we have put women back into the workforce ... but we haven't managed to address the vacuum that leaves at home,' she says. Relying on disadvantaged women to step in to take on the domestic load is not an equitable solution to this intractable problem. 

One answer is men, says Stack. 'In the long run, there's no other solution — men are going to have to do more of the work than they're doing now, whether that's the care work or whether that's domestic tasks of cooking and ironing and cleaning.'

In a society committed to gender equality, men need to do more domestic labour — and if they did, the world would look very different. While men pay for the privilege of having a family with money, women's currency has always been time. 'How many ideas, how many discoveries, how much art lost because the woman spent her time somewhere else?' Stack asks in her book.

Other systemic changes can ease the burden on working women, such as affordable government-subsidised childcare, intergenerational living, and flexible workplaces. 'Nobody has the support right now from the workplace that they need for things to change,' she says.

If we want to allow women the freedom to move beyond the domestic sphere, we need to recognise that cleaning, cooking and caregiving are vital to society and reward the people who do it accordingly.



Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath.

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, parenting, gender equality



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Existing comments

Several generations ago wealthy households in Australia 'employed' servants ( domestics) to do the household chores in often large houses , a ploy used today in many 'developing' countries. Once the question of paying them , a result of the suffragette movement emerged, these methods of household management ceased. Traditionally males have been the breadwinner . The impact of 'manpower' shortages during both World Wars meant women assumed tasks traditionally the work of men. Post war, the norm became women in paid employment, now as the author wrote, fairly essential as the costs of running consumer driven spending households has increased. Subsidised childcare has been Federal Government policy for several generations now, but the cost to the workers in the industry, as Nicola observes, have been dire, with low pay and low socio economic status. It is obscene and a denial of social justice to see child care workers, often with qualifications applicable to Primary Teachers being exploited once again, just as it was in earlier times. Sadly, men can't carry or nurture infants. They can be very good carers in the home, freeing their partners, if employers would agree to support such an initiative . But I would not be holding my breath!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 09 August 2019  

I am sixty years old, my three children all grown up. The eldest is thirty-one. These same debates were happening thirty-one years ago when he was born: if only men would do more, there would be more equity. It seems to be a never-ending aspiration, a bit like the discourse around the freedom to breastfeed in public. These discussions go on and on as if on a loop, generation after generation, it would seem without any hope of resolution. When I was at university in my twenties, I read Shulamith Firestone and her suggestion that foetuses be raised in incubators in order to spare women the burden of childbearing. Only then would we have full equality. You know, life is complicated and without easy answers to these perennial and vexed questions. Shulamith, God rest her soul, died sick and alone. There was not even food in her house. I found childbearing and childraising to be tough gigs. They *are* tough gigs, but someone has to take them on short of the incubator/orphanage models. My grown children are now my best friends. The years spent bearing and raising them were at once the best years and the worst years of my life. It's complicated.

BPLF | 14 October 2019  

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