Timeline: The Unpaid Labour Debate

The road towards recognition of unpaid work has been a long one, and very little progress was made between the end of WWII and the 1970s when the feminist movement brought the issue to the fore again. What follows is a brief summary of some of the major benchmarks in this process.


During the Great Depression of the 1930s, greater emphasis was placed on generating accurate labour statistics. Women’s domestic labour enjoyed an increase in social appreciation as they supported their men folk through financial crisis. For the most part only single women worked in paid labour and this was seen as “taking good jobs from unemployed men”.

In 1934, Australian politician Margaret Reid first expressed concern over the exclusion of domestic production from national accounts and designed a system for estimating the value of housework.

During World War II, Canadian women (including married ones) experienced greater labour force participation and higher wages than ever before.  For the first time, they were given an appropriate role outside of the unpaid domestic sphere.   Following the war, women’s labour force participation dipped sharply as they were pushed back out of their jobs by government policy and a renewed emphasis on female domesticity.  Women were temporarily restricted to unpaid labour again, but in the next decades would experience a steady increase in wage labour participation – often seen as a measure of women’s empowerment.

In the 1970s, radical feminists first examined the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. They focused on how [women’s] domestic labour was essential to maintaining the labour force and by extension the state. Attention was  paid to the establishment of social power relations between men and women in paid and unpaid labour.  A large body of original literature was produced during this period.

In the 1980s, the idea of exploitation was applied to domestic labour for the first time.

In 1993, the U.N.’s “System of National Accounts” was updated to describe subsistence agriculture as having as its end result a product that, though not marketed, was “marketable”, that is, it would command an economically significant price, were it sold. This marks an important step in recognizing a large sector of the unpaid labour force.

In 1996, for the first time, the Canadian Census recognized volunteering and published statistics on the huge amount of labour that is done by unpaid workers each year.

Today much progress has been made as far as recognizing unpaid labour and protecting paid workers when they attend to domestic commitments.  However, legislation has not been extended to protect the rights of those engaging only in unpaid labour, leaving many people – mainly women – at a social and economic disadvantage.



Benería, Lourdes.  “The Enduring Debate over Unpaid Labour.” International Labour Review Vol. 138, No. 3.  1999.


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