World News Day: Recognising the invisible work done by women in Malaysia

Unpaid labour at home largely borne by females affects the economy and society.

Organisations play a big part in helping to address the burden of unpaid work. PHOTO: ST FILE

What if we were paid for all the unpaid work we do at home? This includes caregiving, cleaning, childminding, cooking and so on.

Although some may argue that this is part and parcel of our daily lives, the problem arises when it is overwhelmingly one gender that ends up doing most of this unpaid work.

It is especially problematic when unpaid work becomes the reason women (who shoulder the bulk of it) cannot participate in the workforce or paid labour.

According to data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia, women account for just 38.8 per cent of the workforce; men make up 61.2 per cent.

This does not tally with the almost equal enrolment of boys and girls in higher education institutions.

According to World Bank data in 2018, 60 per cent of Malaysian women who left the workforce cited childcare and domestic work as the main reasons.

The Malaysian Employers Federation's Man-Days Lost And Absenteeism Survey 2019 showed that only 4 per cent out of the 140 respondent companies provided or set up childcare centres at the workplace, with only 1 per cent providing childcare subsidies or allowances.

"Family responsibilities" was the most common reason given by employees for work absenteeism, at 94.2 per cent.

The truth is that although we do not pay mothers or fathers wages for caring for their own children or cleaning up the home or caring for the elderly, these tasks have a huge impact on our economy and society. It is an unresolved issue that needs attention.

We asked The Star readers what they thought about the value of unpaid work done at home, in our poll The Worth Of Unpaid Work, and the results show that a majority of the 648 respondents - females especially - think that these tasks should be valued monetarily.

In fact, 82 per cent of female respondents feel they should be paid for work done at home, while 18 per cent disagree. Fifty-seven per cent of male respondents agree that they should be paid for work done at home, while almost half (43 per cent) disagree.

How much time do we spend on these tasks daily? The largest proportion of female respondents (37.5 per cent) say they spend two to five hours daily on unpaid work.

Among male respondents, 35.2 per cent say they spend one to two hours a day doing these tasks.

This division of home tasks is in keeping with global findings: the International Labour Organisation reports that women do up to four times more unpaid work than men.

Respondents of the poll were a varied bunch comprising full-time workers, part-timers or freelancers, retirees or the unemployed, students and those who are self-employed.

Forty-eight per cent of male respondents say their primary task is cleaning, 14.6 per cent cite laundry, 13.6 per cent cook, 10.8 per cent do childminding work, and 9.9 per cent participate in caregiving.

In comparison, 36.6 per cent of female respondents say their primary task at home is to clean the house, 24.4 per cent cite cooking, 11.2 per cent are involved in caregiving, 10.3 per cent do babysitting, 6.7 per cent do the laundry and 5.7 per cent say they do all of these tasks.

As for the value of their work, about 40 per cent say they should be paid RM100 (S$31) to RM500 a week, 27 per cent think they should be paid RM501 to RM1,000 a week, 15 per cent value their work at RM1,001 to RM2,500 a week, and 16.8 per cent want more than RM2,500 a week.

Some respondents feel strongly that work done at home should be valued, but others feel that these are duties done out of "love". Still others relate how they have had to sacrifice a career because of the home care burden.

There are also some who feel that the burden on women could be reduced if men pulled more of their weight at home.

The issue, says Ms Omna Sreeni-Ong, founder and principal consultant of Engender Consultancy - a social enterprise that promotes gender equality and women's empowerment - is promoting shared responsibilities in families.

"It's not about getting paid to do these tasks at home because we are talking about the everyday lives of families. However, it is more about promoting shared responsibilities - a family coming together to share the burden of unpaid work so that both husband and wife can seek a career and achieve their potential," she said.

Organisations play a big part in helping to address the burden of unpaid work.

However, change is also needed in public policies - in providing services that recognise the value of unpaid work and reduce the unpaid-care burden.

The recent introduction of an insurance protection scheme for housewives is a step forward in recognising their contributions.

Another public policy initiative that must be looked into is the provision of free or affordable high-quality childcare.

This is a basic and crucial need for many families, particularly for those in the lower-income bracket who find it difficult to afford childcare and therefore have no choice but to survive on a single income.

"We need to re-conceptualise and formulate innovative, transformative strategies for social protection and support services in consultation with target groups and civil society groups about things on a macro level," said Ms Omna.

  • This story was first published by The Star of Malaysia in August, as part of its Break the Bias campaign, to draw attention to the status of women in society.

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