Labour Views: This Labour Day, Let’s Honour the Unpaid Labour!

By Lorraine Rousseau

Labour Day is around the corner, and I invite you, to join me, and many others across this land, Canada, to celebrate. I look forward to my first in-person Labour Day celebration since 2019 and I will be here in Yellowknife at Somba K’e park enjoying the day, having conversations with friends, volunteers and workers who’re ensuring that the labour movement is strong in the North.

We’re entitled to celebrate and rejoice. There is a lot to celebrate, it’s an important day in our calendars. Labour Day has its roots in an 1872 printers’ strike in Toronto— demanding and fighting for a nine-hour workday is a remarkable milestone in the Canadian labour history. Celebrating the day means being grateful for those who have paved the way towards a strong labour movement that always strives to fights for workers’ rights.

The fight is far from over yet. This Labour Day, I want us to reflect and think about many causes that we care about in our communities, at work and beyond. I want to honour the unpaid workers—who’re carrying the burden of hard essential unpaid labour. Around the world, women do the vast majority of unpaid work: cooking, cleaning and, in many countries, farming. This work is essential for households, but it’s rarely valued as paid work— and the rights that workers gained over the centuries don’t apply to unpaid labour.

Do you know that, globally, women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men? According to a report by Oxfam, the monetary value of unpaid care work globally for women aged 15 and over is at least $10.8 trillion annually. That’s three times of the world’s tech industry.

According to a study that was completed by the National Economic Accounts Division at Statistics Canada, the economic value of unpaid household work in Canada was between $516.9 billion and $860.2 billion in 2019. What does this mean? These values amounted to between 25.2% and 37.2% of Canada’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. This is more than the contribution of all the manufacturing, wholesale and retail industries combined. I’m aware that Canada is at a much better position, globally. But let’s not forget that the system is far from perfect.

Women’s unpaid work contributes to their poverty, and this has worsened during the pandemic. As nations, globally, are striving to recover and emerge safely it’s important to understand that a just recovery must be translated to leaving no one behind. There are many reasons why women spend more time in unpaid labour. We can’t deny that gender stereotypes play a role. But that’s not the only reason. Women, and some men, take the burden of unpaid labour because they step in to fill in the gaps in services such as childcare, healthcare, caregiving, etc.

UN Women calls to “redistribute unpaid work.” Besides men taking an equal share of the unpaid work, there is more to do. Governments must intervene— and us, citizens, can raise our voice to bring positive change locally, nationally, and globally. Here is the solution, presented by UN Women: “Policies that provide services, social protection and basic infrastructure, promote sharing of domestic and care work between men and women, and create more paid jobs in the care economy, are urgently needed to accelerate progress on women’s economic empowerment.”

How does this look like on the ground? More childcare facilities, funded by the government. Long-term facilities that are funded by the government(s). Not relying on profit-driven private caregiving facilities. Implementing and promoting needed programs and policies that eradicates poverty and food insecurity. Introducing Basic Income. And the list goes on.

Change is a process and not an event. On this Labour Day, I invite you to take action: this might be signing a petition, raising awareness, having a conversation, reading a credible article, etc. Let’s celebrate the victories that workers have won over the years. But let’s never forget that social justice and gender equity are at the heart of the labour movement. Let’s honour the unpaid labour by urging governments to step in and fill the gap in essential services such as caregiving.

This column appeared in the Yellowknifer on August 31, 2022.