Kōrero: Unpaid domestic work

Whārangi 1. The importance of unpaid work

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Traditionally a substantial amount of New Zealanders’ work has been done in the home without direct pay. This includes housework, raising children, caring for the sick or elderly, making clothes, preserving food, keeping hens, growing fruit and vegetables, household maintenance and small construction projects.

Unpaid domestic work is a significant economic activity. It often saves on the cost of purchasing goods and services, though it can create a financial drain on the household by taking time and energy that could be used for paid employment.

Without the unpaid work done – largely by women – in the home, family members could not spend as much time at paid work outside the home. Unpaid work has been described as ‘the invisible infrastructure which keeps everything else going – a vast springboard-cum-safety net spread beneath the formal economy’.1

However, unpaid work is not counted in the country’s economic statistics. In 1988 economist Marilyn Waring commented that ‘women and children count for nothing’ because their contribution to the economy is not included in official statistics.2

The value of unpaid work in New Zealand in 1999 was calculated at $40 billion, equivalent to 39% of gross domestic product. Each person aged 15 or over spent an average of 27.6 hours per week on unpaid work activities.

Men and women

Men and women traditionally had separate roles in unpaid domestic work in Pākehā New Zealand culture. Men stayed out of the kitchen and women kept out of the shed – the household’s home maintenance centre.



American sociologist David Ausubel, visiting New Zealand in the 1950s, noted that in New Zealand ‘the “do-it-yourself” dictum is carried to the point of fanaticism, the general principle being that it is next to sinful to spend good money on a purchase or on hired labour if one can do it oneself, irrespective of how long it takes.’ 3


In the early 2000s women still did the greater share of unpaid domestic work. A national Time Use Survey, conducted in 1998–99 for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, found that although men and women spent the same amount of time working, women spent two more hours a day doing unpaid work, and men spent two more hours a day in paid work. The 2006 census found that women were still more likely than men to do unpaid work.

Men spent considerably more time than women on household maintenance jobs, according to the Time Use Survey. They also spent slightly more time on grounds maintenance and animal care.

Pay for housewives

In the 1890s the National Council of Women wanted wives to be paid for domestic work, suggesting they be given an equal share in a husband’s income by law.

Press and public opinion was negative. The Lyttelton Times said this would lead to ‘the degradation of woman from the position of man’s equal to that of paid housekeeper’ and ‘something a thousand times more revolting … wives would be paid a price for exercising the sacred function of motherhood’.4 Council president Amey Daldy responded, ‘I believe many a wife would rejoice to be raised to the level of a paid housekeeper; in that case she would have fewer duties, more leisure and higher pay.’5

In the early 20th century, groups like the Women’s Institute wanted the status of mothers and housewives enhanced. Housewives’ unions were set up in 1912 and the New Zealand Housewives Association in 1939 – the two groups amalgamating as the Federation of New Zealand Housewives in 1957 – but their agenda was more about the rising price of household goods than pay for housework. Twentieth-century feminist groups did not pick up the campaign for paid housework from feminism’s first wave.

The Matrimonial Property Act 1976 legislated women’s unpaid contribution into a share of assets on the break-up of a marriage.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Anne Else, False economy: New Zealanders face the conflict between paid and unpaid work. Auckland: Tandem, 1996, p. 14. Back
  2. Marilyn Waring, Counting for nothing: what men value & what women are worth. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1988, p. 134. Back
  3. Quoted in Jim Weir, New Zealand wit and wisdom: quotations with attitude. Auckland: Tandem, 1998, p. 13. Back
  4. Quoted in Roberta Nicholls, The women’s parliament. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1996, p. 41. Back
  5. Quoted in The women’s parliament, p. 42. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Matt Morris, 'Unpaid domestic work - The importance of unpaid work', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/unpaid-domestic-work/page-1 (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Matt Morris, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010