Rafal Chomik

Since its proposal at a 1910 conference, International Women’s Day, which we celebrated last week, has served as a reminder of the role of women in society and the struggle for equality.

The most commonly debated element of this struggle relates to balancing child care and work. Policy makers have responded with various measures.

In Australia and elsewhere even cuts to parental benefits are justified on the basis that they are aimed to help parents, particularly single mothers, into work. The recent introduction of paid parental leave for fathers and partners is intended to help parents become more equal in balancing work and family. And in courting women’s votes for the upcoming federal election the Coalition has pledged to take the issue further by proposing to extend paid maternity leave.

But another area of unpaid work in which women overwhelmingly participate involves care for people with disabilities and the elderly. Australian Bureau of Statistics data on unpaid care shows that women comprise 68 per cent of primary carers overall, 92 per cent of primary carers of children with a disability, 70 per cent of primary carers of parents, and 52 per cent of primary carers for partners. It translates to 1.5 million Australian women acting as either primary or secondary carers.

The benefit of this unpaid work is considerable. One set of recent estimates puts the value of unpaid care by both women and men at $650 billion – equivalent to 50.6 per cent of GDP.

But carers often bear the cost of their unpaid responsibilities. Informal care is associated with lower levels of formal employment, higher risks of poverty, and a higher probability of mental health problems.

Unpaid primary carers are half as likely to be participating in the labour force as non-primary carers. And when they are employed, they are twice as likely to be in part-time work and 30 per cent more likely to hold a temporary job. These impacts increase with hours of care provided.

Of course, the care involved may be incompatible with a full-time job or there may be a level of ‘self-selection’ into the role of unpaid care-giver by those who had lower market opportunities in the first place. But analysis shows that even controlling for such socio-demographic variation, informal carers are less likely to be in paid employment.

Lower employment rates, fewer formal working hours, and fewer household members with earnings can mean that unpaid carers have a higher probability of experiencing poverty. Women carers appear to be particularly vulnerable to such a risk. Moreover, less work and lower earnings during their working life translates to lower savings and incomes in retirement.

The psychological distress and isolation of caring and the lack of support are possible reasons why unpaid carers in Australia are shown to have a 40% higher rate of mental health problems than non-carers. Again, even controlling for socio-demographic characteristics shows that informal caring is associated with more mental health problems and that the impact is more detrimental for women. Being the recipient of a carers’ allowance does not seem to alter the negative impact on mental health in Australia.

With an ageing population the demand for informal care is only going to increase. Indeed, the Productivity Commission sees such care as an integral part of the Australian aged care system. At the same time, the Commission points to the likely reduction in availability of informal care due to demographic and motivational factors. Yet, most informal care is low intensity, with 55% of informal carers providing 0-9 hours of care. Such figures suggests that with the right level of support there is scope for some carers to increase their hours of care with limited impact on work and mental health outcomes. So how do we design support systems for informal carers that avoid the negative impacts?

The Australian government has started putting various measures in place. It developed a National Carer Strategy as a framework to address the economic, educational, and health needs of informal carers.

While flexible work for women with children has been on the agenda for a while, only recently has care responsibility across the life-course been recognised. Last month, the Prime Minister announced that the Fair Work Act will be amended to extend the right to request flexible working to carers – it was already available for those caring for children.

As ever, there is more that can be done. In January, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, released a report calling for a series of possible reforms to support unpaid carers including legislative mechanisms, flexible work arrangements, carer support payments, leave arrangements, services for carers, workplace initiatives and mechanisms within the retirement income and savings system.

Investing in unpaid carers would mean not only relieving pressure from the formal aged care system and improving the quality of care for recipients, it would also go some way to redress this particular area of gender inequality.

Rafal Chomik is a Senior Research Fellow at the Arc Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research at UNSW.