Governments know shockingly little about the millions of informal and unpaid women workers – and, in a world that undervalues their labour, that’s no accident

Alex Bush Gender, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

Millions of unpaid care and informal workers too often live in poverty, face long hours with harsh conditions, and see their efforts dismissed as “not real work”. In a blog for International Workers’ Day, Alex Bush calls for those in power to find out much more about these women as a crucial first step to valuing their work.

The time women spend on informal and unpaid work is massive, and represents one of the biggest contributions from workers to the global economy. They clean, feed, and care for our societies, and environment; they are farmers, cleaners, waste pickers, street vendors; they keep our world turning.

Yet government and policy makers know far too little about these workers who keep families and economies functioning. All too often, their work is undervalued, overlooked, and effectively invisible. And this invisibility is no accident: it’s a reflection of a political mindset that devalues women and their contributions.

On International Workers’ Day, we want to highlight the staggering lack of attention, information and resources put towards understanding the lives of the millions of unpaid care and informal women workers around the world.

‘For years, feminist economists, researchers and women’s rights organisations have been churning out data and calling for national statistics to recognise and count this work. But these calls have largely been ignored’

Because, how can governments value women’s work if they don’t know enough about who they are? And, how can policy makers address the challenges they face and the obstacles to a decent and dignified work and life if they don’t have an understanding, rooted in good evidence, of what those challenges and obstacles might be?

And there is some data there already for policy, although governments need to support and invest in the collection of collecting much more. For years, feminist economists, researchers and women’s rights organisations have been churning out data and calling for national statistics to recognise and count this work. But their demands and data have largely been ignored by those in power.

Policy makers need to be part of the solution: paying attention to data that already exists and  commissioning the data they need to fully understand the challenges women face in getting decent jobs and living a dignified life. It’s time those in power recognised that this is less about “getting women into the workforce” and more about valuing the work they already do.

So what data is there about informal women workers?

Around the world, most women living in poverty do some informal work, and virtually all women do some unpaid care and domestic work. A key part of valuing this work is making it counted, visible and valued. But most informal work isn’t captured in the statistics, meaning the time put into this work and its economic and social contribution are invisible. Crucially, that invisibility means that workers’ needs are rarely considered in economic and social policy decisions.

Research suggests that women do more unpaid and domestic care work than men; the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlighted in 2018 that women do 76.2% of all unpaid care work globally (compared with 23.8% provided by men).

‘It’s important to remember that the scarcity of data isn’t an accident: it’s a reflection of a political mindset that devalues women and their contributions more generally’

It also seems that, the more marginalised someone is, based on income, race, caste, ethnicity or migrant status, among other identities, the more likely they are to be informally employed (and in precarious conditions) and the more hours of unpaid care work they’re  likely to do.

And this issue isn’t confined to the “Global Majority”: precarity and informalisation are on the rise globally. For example, in the UK 3.4% of all workers are now on zero-hour contracts, compared with 0.4% in 2003, and these figures don’t even include workers in the “gig economy” who are often classified as “self-employed”.

Beyond that, there are a few data sets about the workers who shoulder the burden of this labour, and the conditions they face:

  • Time-use surveys: thanks to the pioneering work of feminist economists and gender equality activists, these surveys measure the contribution of unpaid care and domestic work, looking at how people spend their time on different activities, including childcare, cleaning, and paid and unpaid work. But, these insights don’t always translate into analysis of the value of women’s work and how it contributes to wellbeing. And such surveys aren’t usually part of the census or national statistics, so many countries don’t have up-to-date information. In the UK for example, the last survey was almost a decade ago, in 2014-15; and according to the World Bank, in several countries, including Malaysia, Lesotho, and Latvia, there’s no data available after 2003.
  • Labour Force Surveys aim to capture information on all workers, spanning both the formal and informal sector, but they often fall short, as not all informal work falls within the definitions and categories used. Unpaid care and other unpaid work is also left out of these surveys, as are many second and seasonal jobs. This means that, though they provide some useful information for policy makers, they keep/make many other workers invisible, and reinforce a narrative that if you’re not counted, you’re not “working”.

From the data that is available, we know that informal and unpaid women workers too often face poor working conditions and high levels of precarity, income poverty, and time-poverty (meaning there aren’t enough hours in the day for them to meet all their needs, or have rest/recreation time). They also have little to no social protection coverage, meaning no access to sick pay, maternity leave, holidays, or carers’ allowances.

And what don’t we know about them?

The invisibility of informal women workers makes it hard to find meaningful data about who these workers are, and about the specific challenges they face, based on factors like where they are, and the types of work they do.

For example, while we know from a few key snapshots that the women who are most marginalised are the most likely both to be informally employed and to shoulder the highest burden of unpaid care, we lack the widescale demographic and intersectional data that would enable policy to be tailored to their needs.

Likewise, we don’t have enough information on the social or economic value of their contribution, which makes it harder to push for a fairer system. With that kind of information, we could measure the value of informal and unpaid work against the projected cost of adequate investment in care and social protection, helping to build an economic, as well as a moral, case for investment in the latter.

It’s important to remember that the scarcity of data isn’t an accident: it’s a reflection of a society that devalues women and their contributions more broadly. Work that’s seen as women’s work (such as cooking, cleaning, and care more generally) is not seen as an important part of the economy, or something worth measuring. But we know that this is wrong: if the time women spent on unpaid care and domestic work were valued at a minimum wage, it would be an industry worth $10.8 trillion per year. Yet, as women’s work isn’t seen as important, data gathering is underfunded and under-prioritised.

It’s time to measure the whole economy and the value of women workers!

The women whose work keeps our society going must be recognised, their work must be decent and dignified and it must be valued. Their voices must be heard in policy-making spaces.

That means proper and consistent measuring of their contribution that takes into account the myriad types of work currently disregarded – an important task for both national governments and multilateral institutions such as UN Women, the International Monetary Fund, the African Development Bank and the International Labour Organization. There are some countries, such as Kenya and Scotland, who are already leading the way on this, thanks to the determined campaigning of feminist movements and economists.

It also means moving beyond traditional metrics to listen to and amplify the voices and stories of the women doing this work around the world. It’s time to start measuring the whole economy and recognising the vital importance of women workers around the world.

This International Workers’ Day, those in power need to start centring the labour of the workers who are most often ignored, and whose work is least often counted.


Alex Bush

Alex Bush is a researcher on Valuing Women’s Work at Oxfam GB

This is the first in a series of blogs over the coming weeks to mark International Workers’ Day. subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest posts and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Find out more: You can find out about Oxfam’s work in this area on our Valuing Women’s Work website. Thanks to the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for their support with this. Do also check out this blog by Leena Patel on informal work:  “Informal work traps millions of women in poverty: let’s back the labour movements that can fight for decent jobs.”