WASHINGTON — Twenty years after an international grass-roots effort began to win recognition for so-called "women's work," a bill that would have the government calculate the value of unpaid labor and include it in the gross national product has been introduced in Congress.
Sponsored by Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins (D-Mich.), the measure would require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct time-use surveys of unremunerated services such as housework, caring for children and others, agricultural work, volunteer work and unpaid work in family businesses.
The monetary value of unremunerated work could be calculated, advocates say, based on the market value of similar services. The information obtained from such a study would be included in the statistics used to determine the GNP, the measure of all goods and services produced in the nation.
THE ISSUE: "Society can no longer afford to deny that the work we do in the home and in the community counts and society depends on it," said Margaret Prescod, a Los Angeles resident and leader in the Wages for Housework Campaign. "No one should have their work remain invisible. But we're told again and again it only counts if it's exchanged for money."
Since most of the unpaid jobs are done by women, proponents of the bill say that including their unpaid labor in the GNP would change the perception that women homemakers are unproductive and would result in women's needs and demands being taken more seriously.
Some economists argue, however, that including non-wage work in the GNP would be going too far. Charles Schultze, former director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said that while a study of the value of non-wage work might be useful to economists, adding housework and volunteer work to the GNP would only obscure the meaning of that figure.
"I don't think you would gain a lot of useful information for business or government," he said.
The International Wages for Housework Campaign, founded in London in 1972, is composed of women in Third World and industrialized countries who want to get recognition, and eventually compensation, for the work they do at home and on the farm.
Prescod, a leader in the movement since its beginnings in this country, was one of many grass-roots activists who successfully lobbied at the 1985 U.N. Decade for Women World Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, for the United Nations to adopt a resolution stating that the value of women's unpaid contributions in housework, agriculture, food production and reproduction should be measured and included in every country's GNP.
Many economists agree that an up-to-date study on the value of unpaid work should be conducted by the government, but they disagree as to whether that information should be included in the GNP, or, perhaps, in some type of supplemental super-GNP.
Carol Clark, an economist at Guilford College in North Carolina, said that excluding non-wage work from the GNP results in underestimation of the value of goods and services produced.
"If only work done in the home by women were added, GNP would rise by 25% to 40%," she said. "If we had been counting women's unwaged work 30 years ago when women began entering the work force, policy-makers would have foreseen the current child care and elder care crises."
OUTLOOK: The United Nations' deadline for governments to act on the measure was the year 2000, but a U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, at its meeting last year, moved the deadline for governments to begin counting women's unpaid work to 1995.
The House bill has been referred to the Committee on Education and Labor but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. Its chances for final congressional approval are uncertain.
A bill similar to the one introduced in the House is now in a committee of the British Parliament.
There has been little, if any, interest shown in the resolution by other industrial nations.