The government has renewed its commitment to flexible working hours for workers with caring responsibilities. It is ironic this commitment should follow so closely on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) cancelling the relevant statistical collection.* Time-use surveys are the only accurate record of the unpaid work that underpins economic activity. They provide crucial data enabling policy analysis that accurately encompasses women’s working lives and experience.
Diary-based time-use surveys provide accurate data concerning the extent and distribution of unpaid work and its intersection with paid work. This data is vital for good policy and planning. We need to know how much care is currently being provided on a voluntary basis, how this affects retirement incomes and the effects of increased participation in the paid workforce on availability for care work.
Such data is particularly important due to the aging of the population and policies such as early release from hospital care. It is also relevant to early life care and education policy agendas and to understanding the time required to maintain health and reduce future health system costs. In general, we need to be able to estimate the value to the economy of goods and services provided on an unpaid basis. Without such measures economic statistics are incomplete, misleading and can lead to counter-productive policy outcomes.
The time-use survey is also an absolutely vital statistical record of women’s work, which too often goes unrecorded because the bulk of it is unpaid. For this reason, women’s organisations across the political spectrum have always strongly supported this survey. The distribution of unpaid work is also key to understanding women’s cumulative economic disadvantage over the life course and to effective strategies for gender equality.
Australian time-use methodology is world class and accepted as best practice internationally. It is also among the most cost-effective of ABS surveys. To save a relatively trivial amount a national data treasure will be lost.
National time-use surveys took place in 1992, 1997 and 2006. In 2000 the time-use survey was dropped as a core social survey. This meant it lost some continuity despite change in this area being at least as pervasive as in other areas of social concern. We need repeated measures over the years to capture changes in work and family balance. Anecdotal evidence is insufficient and risky as a basis for family policy, including policy that enables men to spend more time on caring responsibilities. Policy departments need this data.
At a time when such data is most urgently required, and when existing data is already more than six years old, the time-use survey needs to be enhanced rather than abolished. Making policy in the dark will mean that millions of productive Australians will continue to be disadvantaged by their caring responsibilities, poor transport services and lack of time for healthy life-styles.
Marian Sawer with Michael Bittman and Julie Smith
School of Politics and International Relations, ANU
* In order to achieve MYEFO savings the ABS has cancelled the 2013 Work, Life and Family Survey: Work, Care and Family Balance (WoLFS), which includes the Time Use Survey. The next time use survey is now scheduled to take place in 2019, which would be 13 years after the last one in 2006!!