Work as a dimension of poverty

Work in all its forms occupies a substantial amount of people’s time and is essential to livelihoods and wellbeing. Before industrial capitalism, work was understood as those activities required for human survival and was often at subsistence level (Edgell and Granter, 2020: 1–6). While work still involves subsistence activities for much of the world’s population, the concept has increasingly been associated with productive activity undertaken for pay or profit. Work is the means by which individuals provide for themselves and their families and manage insecurity. Unemployment and underemployment are causes of poverty, while poverty itself ‘inhibits access to employment and with it a route to self-sufficiency’ (Walker and Collins, 2004: 193). Work is also closely associated with an individual’s status within their society. While the absence of paid work is often a cause of social stigma, the nature of work may also cause stigma. For marginalised social groups, the need to earn an income may require acceptance of work that is unsafe, unhealthy or humiliating.

The right to work (understood as work for payment or profit) is enshrined in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to employment is further developed in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which entitles people to safe and health working conditions, to rest and leisure, and to the regulation of working hours. The covenant also entitles women to ‘guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work’. The role of the International Labour Organization, the earliest of the United Nations’ specialised agencies, is to promote decent work for all and to ensure international regulation of the nature and conditions of work.

Within global development discourse, paid employment is widely presented as desirable for individuals and a marker of development. The 2013 World Development Report on jobs opens by stating ‘jobs are the cornerstone of economic and social development…People work their way out of poverty and hardship through better livelihoods. Economies grow as people get better at what they do, as they move from farms to firms, and as more productive jobs are created and less productive ones disappear’ (World Bank, 2013: 3). The report also highlights the need to create appropriate conditions of work. The International Labour Organization has also emphasised the role of employment in reducing poverty, calling for a rights-based approach whereby labour standards, workers’ rights, and fair and decent conditions of work are respected (ILO, 2016: 121). The International Labour Organization defines decent conditions as work that is productive and undertaken in conditions of freedom, equality, security and human dignity (Nizami and Prasad, 2017: 9). SDG 8 combines a predominantly neoliberal approach that prioritises economic growth and productivity with elements of a rights-based approach in calling for ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’.

What the research reveals about work

Paid work, in all its forms, is highly gendered. Persistent labour market segregation has resulted in women having fewer employment opportunities, which reinforces gender inequality (World Bank, 2012: 198). The pay gap between women and men remains large, with the global average of women’s income about half that of men (World Economic Forum, 2019: 17). Moreover, the Global Gender Gap Report for 2020 found that progress towards pay parity has stalled (World Economic Forum, 2019: 17).

While the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other development actors have argued that closing gender gaps to enhance economic productivity and outcomes is ‘smart economics’ (World Bank, 2012), feminists have argued that this approach fails to take account of or address the structural inequalities that women face – within the workplace and beyond.

A critical gender issue relating to work, which is often unrecognised by a smart economics approach, is the dual or double burden. This describes the combination of productive and reproductive labour. While both men and women may undertake both paid and unpaid work, the latter falls heavily to women. A six-country study by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development found that while women spent fewer hours than men in paid or ‘productive’ work – and often too few hours to be included in the System of National Accounts – they worked more hours than men overall. In all countries, women spent more than twice as much time as men in unpaid care and domestic work (Budlender, 2008). Chant (2014) has noted that dual burdens are exacerbated in the context of poverty where the time inputs required of women are increased markedly. She argues that women not only undertake more unpaid work, but also assume greater responsibility for coping with poverty – the ‘feminisation of responsibility’.

While mainstream discourse around ‘work’ tends to focus on work for pay or for profit, feminists have long pointed out the need to expand definitions of work to include unpaid work, including domestic and care work. Unpaid work is often carried out by women, and is undervalued both socially and economically. Waring (1999), among others, has illuminated the failure of economics to recognise unpaid work, thus rendering invisible the enormous contribution of women to societies through their labour.

The extent of women’s unpaid contribution is rarely captured in existing mainstream surveys. While time-use studies can reveal the time spent on care and domestic work, there is a severe lack of data relating to unpaid work. SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls adopts SDG Target 5.4 of recognising and valuing unpaid care and domestic work, yet the means of achieving this target remain elusive. Moreover, there is a dearth of data on the relationship between unpaid work and poverty.

What the IMMP reveals about work

Participants in the research that underpins the IMMP identified both the value and importance of work, and the trade-offs, stigma and risks that many forms of paid work present for people who are marginalised or living in poverty. Women, in particular, spoke of the barriers to paid employment, the extent of their unpaid work, and their double burden.

What the IMMP Work dimension measures

The work dimension of the IMMP consists of three themes: work for pay, profit and production; unpaid domestic and care work; and the double labour burden.

Theme 1: Work for pay

The first theme relates to work for pay, profit and production, and has four indicators.

The first indicator is employment status, and is derived from four variables. The first two variables ascertain whether the respondent was employed or not during the past 7 or 30 days, respectively. The third variable assesses the reasons for not working and the fourth assesses any reasons the respondent was not available for work. (Responses to the third and fourth variables determine the respondent’s categorisation as either unemployed or not in the labour force by choice.)

The second indicator concerns job security, and was constructed from three variables assessing expectations about prospects for future work, number of previous jobs held, and whether employment is in the formal sector.

The third indicator relates to the hazards encountered during work for pay, profit and production. It is constructed from three variables relating to whether the respondent experienced any injury, illness or mental harm as a result of their work, and the nature and permanence of any consequential impacts.

The fourth indicator examines workplace harassment, and is constructed from three variables which relate to experiences of sexual harassment, physical abuse and/or work that is felt to be humiliating.

Theme 2: Unpaid domestic and care work

The second theme, unpaid domestic and care work, has two indicators.

The first indicator examines hazards in unpaid domestic and care work. It is constructed from three variables similar to those considered in hazards in work for pay, profit and production in Theme 1. These determine whether the respondent experienced any injury, illness or mental harm as a result of their unpaid domestic and care work, and the nature and permanence of any consequential impacts.

The second indicator considers the issue of respect in unpaid domestic and care work. Of the two contributing variables, the first considers whether the respondent is free from humiliating treatment while doing their unpaid work, and the second considers whether this work is valued by other household members.

Theme 3: Double labour burden

The third theme assesses the double labour burden of paid and unpaid work. It has one indicator with two variables. It is constructed from information from the respondent about average hours spent per week doing work for pay, profit and production, and average hours per week spent doing unpaid domestic and care work.



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