Recognition of unpaid work – Importance, Benefits and Challenges


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In the recent election season, people noticed numerous promises being made by politicians to woo the public. One of the promises which sought attention the most was the promise made by few political parties to give recognition to unpaid work done by women as homemakers. This brings into discussion the very subject which needs special attention for a long time. It is a well – known fact that women’s work as caregivers and homemakers have zero recognition in society. The fact does not just show the gender inequality prevailing in society but also brings to limelight the role and importance of unpaid work. So, the time has come to hold a discussion on this subject and move forward in ensuring equality for everyone in all the terms in society.

Recognition-of-unpaid-work mindmap

This topic of “Recognition of unpaid work – Importance, Benefits and Challenges” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is unpaid work?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition, unpaid work refers to the production of goods or services that are consumed by those within or outside a household, but not for sale in the market. It brings into question the definition of work and how can we differentiate between paid and unpaid work? According to the definition by OECD, an activity is considered “work” (vs. “leisure”) if a third person could be paid to do a certain activity.

Types of unpaid work

Unpaid work can be classified into two categories – one includes unpaid work that is placed within the production boundary of the System of National Accounts (SNA) such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and another is which does not include unpaid work within the production boundary (non-SNA work). Examples include domestic work done within households for consumption to volunteering as a form of charity work and interning. However, there are some major categories in which unpaid work can be classified:

  • Unpaid informal caregiving – It encompasses care and assistance provided by individuals to other individuals outside of civic or voluntary organizations. It includes work often similar to paid caregiving like childcare provision, nursing, and home care. These are typically among the lowest-paid occupations in the labour force. These caregivers are often family members, relatives, friends and volunteers and this work is often done by women. The recipients are usually children, elders, individuals who are ill or people with disabilities, as well as individuals within the paid workforce like supervisors, co-workers, and friends.
  • Volunteering – Unpaid work that extends beyond one’s own household into the households of others and social institutions more broadly is generally classified as “volunteer work”. Volunteer work includes both works done for formal organizations as well as help and care provided informally by individuals for other individuals. These activities are integral to maintaining the labour force, although they are rarely recognized as such. These works are also usually performed by women and include feminized work of care such as schools, hospitals, and voluntary services related to elder and child care.
  • Unpaid work in paid workplaces – Various types of unpaid work are performed by individuals in the workplace itself and often misrecognized as volunteer work. A majority of these works are undertaken by women and include cleaning, informal caregiving, serving other individuals, and maintaining interpersonal relations.
  • Unpaid domestic work – The list of unpaid domestic activities includes meal preparation and clean-up; clothing care; cleaning; plant and garden care; home maintenance/management; care for children and adults; unpaid help to other households; shopping or obtaining services; travel as part of the care or obtaining services; and unpaid work in family businesses. Although a majority of women engage in paid work, women remain disproportionately responsible for daily housework in dual-earner families.
  • Unpaid subsistence activities – Subsistence activities can include the cultivation of vegetables, fetching wood and water, and the care of livestock animals, especially important for farming households’ economies. These are usually performed by women.
  • Unpaid family work – Unpaid family work refers to the direct contributions of unpaid family members to production for the market, work that is officially counted under another member of the household. Unpaid family work is generally performed by women from diverse geographical and social locations, such as immigrants, farm wives and executive/political spouses.

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How much unpaid work is done and by whom?

  • A significant share of the work done in any industrialized economy is unpaid work (care-taking, educational roles, volunteer activities, self-employment, etc.).
  • Research has shown that globally more than 76 per cent of total unpaid care work is performed by women and girls.
  • Around the world, women do the vast majority of the unpaid work, including child care, cooking, cleaning and farming.
  • From cooking and cleaning to fetching water and firewood or taking care of children and the elderly, women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men.
  • According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women perform unpaid care work 4 times more than men. Men from the Asia Pacific region are said to contribute the least to unpaid care work.
  • Unpaid care and domestic work is valued to be 10 and 39 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and can contribute more to the economy than the manufacturing, commerce or transportation sectors (UN Women Report).
  • With the onslaught of climate change, women’s unpaid work in farming, gathering water and fuel is growing even more.

Why is some work unpaid and what is their role?

  • Unpaid work is essential for households and economies to function, unpaid work subsidizes the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies and often fills in for the lack of social services.
  • Other reasons include a sex-segregated labour market, the prevailing sex discrimination and domination of men’s values in society at large which leads to women doing most of the unpaid work.
  • Women are generally given such roles because of the general belief in a woman’s “natural” capacity to carry out care work.

Unpaid work by women and the Indian context

  • The proportion of “unpaid work per day is far higher for women than men globally, while in the case of India on average 66 per cent of women’s work is unpaid,” says the WEF.
  • While the global value of unpaid domestic labour by women hovers around 13 per cent, in India, the number is almost 40% of its GDP.
  • According to the time use data from the most recent round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2020, women spend 238 minutes (four hours) more on unpaid work each day than men in India.
  • Unpaid care work constitutes about 35% of India’s GDP and is equivalent to about 182% of the total government tax revenue (ActionAid, 2017).
  • Indian women’s contribution to the GDP is 17%; this is not only far below the average 37% but is also less than that of China (41%) and sub-Saharan Africa (39%). Globally, women spend three times more time on unpaid care work than men. However, in India, it is 9.8 times more (NITI Aayog, 2017).

Why is the recognition of unpaid work needed?

  • Unpaid work remains invisible, both in policies and statistics. Since the work done at home doesn’t necessarily generate products and services for the market, economists often ignore it in their calculations and the result is that a massive portion of the work done by women goes unrecognised as labour and is treated as a duty.
  • Regardless of the hours of the day women put into domestic labour, the work is often dismissed as a set of daily chores and not accounted for in either the GDP or the employment metrics.
  • According to the Census in 2011, people engaged in household duties have been treated as non-workers, even when a large number of women stated that “household work” was their main occupation.
  • For real equality, unpaid domestic work needs to be legitimised and given due recognition. Only then can we expect equal participation in the workforce, and in the household.
  • Recognition of unpaid work is also important to improve the quality of life of those who are engaged in it.
  • For many women, unpaid work is not a matter of choice rather it is a compulsion due to the patriarchal setup of the society which impedes them from utilising their potential and realising their worth.
  • Unpaid work keeps women poor and hinders them from taking independent financial decisions.
  • In a report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also suggested that if women’s participation in the economy was raised to that of men, then India’s GDP can grow by 27%.
  • Therefore, recognition of unpaid work is needed to ensure social justice.

Benefits of recognition of unpaid work

  • Recognition of unpaid work done by women can lead to women empowerment and will provide a sense of equality among women in the patriarchal social setup.
  • It will lead to a more holistic understanding of the value of labour which is not only tied to the exchange value of service in the market but also recognises the importance of labour in keeping the family intact and functional.
  • Recognition of unpaid work which is almost dominated by women can help them in claiming some degree of parity in terms of the time and energy expended on it.

Challenges in recognition of unpaid work

  • It will be a difficult task to measure the amount of unpaid work done because they cannot be separately identified as activities in an economic sense.
  • It would not enhance women’s economic independence in the long run, because it would discourage labour-market participation and investments in education and vocational training of women.
  • It would contribute to maintaining the traditional division of work between women and men instead of eradicating it.
  • It will make the relationship of women with the family a relationship of master-slave which is contrary to the very idea of family in society.

Measures taken

  • Recognition of the importance of unpaid work and the need to understand its nature and role has been increasing.
  • The target to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work (Target 5.4) under Goal 5 on Gender Equality has been recognised as one of the goals of UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • This increase in demand for information on unpaid work was also a driver of key changes in statistical standards introduced at the 19th International Conference on Labour Statisticians in 2013.


  • Women empowerment on all fronts through various ways such as making education accessible to women and making them economically independent may help.
  • Women empowerment must include empowerment in the fields of autonomy, choice, capability, freedom, participation, and power. Then only the deeply-rooted gendered political economy can change.
  • The concept of 3Rs of Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution can work. There is a need to recognize, reduce, and/or redistribute unpaid care work.
  • Governments can relieve the burden of unpaid work by investing in appropriate infrastructure and public services. In particular, investments in water, sanitation, electricity, and transport are critical in developing countries to allow for the “engines of liberation” that enable women to spend less time doing very low-productivity tasks.
  • The provision of adequate security services is also important to ensure that women can travel to and from work or school safely.
  • Investments in digital infrastructure to foster access to the internet can also reduce unpaid work.
  • Unpaid work can also be reduced by providing child and elderly care. Better access to affordable quality childcare frees up women’s time for formal employment.
  • High tax rates for secondary earners discourage labour force participation and raise women’s unpaid work. There should be provisions for low tax for the secondary earner.
  • Better labour regulations and efficiency also contribute to reducing women’s unpaid work.
  • Family-friendly policies make it easier for women to combine paid work and child care. There should be increased parity in paternity and maternity leave.
  • Flexible work arrangements also help redistribute unpaid work between men and women.


Unpaid work plays a very important role in society. Recognising this role will lead to a more egalitarian society. Even though there has been a significant change observed in the sharing of gender roles, yet there is an urgent need for reducing and redistributing unpaid work. Governments can play an important role in doing so. Change in the social and cultural setup is also important so that the burden reduces on those who are provided with the sole responsibility of carrying unpaid work. Recognition of unpaid work is an important step forward in ensuring social justice for all.

Practise question

  1. What role does unpaid work play in the economy and what may be the reliable ways to quantify it?

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