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The politics of domestic labour

  • 08 August 2019


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.

The 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