Many couples were faced with a challenge when answering the 2021 Census, which contained a question about how much unpaid housework each person in the household had done in the previous week. Media reports in the following days suggest that a lot of people disagreed with their spouses over how much domestic labour each person in the household actually provides, compared with what each person perceives that they provide.
Unpaid domestic work, including child-rearing, is a relevant and important consideration when determining the division of assets, liabilities and financial resources following a relationship breakdown and can often be one of the sticking points when it comes to determining an appropriate split, again because each person’s perceptions of what they contributed and what their spouse contributed can greatly differ.
In simple terms, when determining the appropriate division of assets of a relationship, the following factors are taken into account: the net value of the asset pool to be divided; the financial and non-financial contributions made by each party; the future needs of each party; and the justice and equity of making a division of assets. Unpaid domestic labour is relevant when assessing non-financial contributions, and future needs.
Jobs such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening, home maintenance, all the tasks associated with caring for children, and caring for a spouse who is ill or disabled are all non-financial contributions (although this is not an exhaustive list). These are the tasks that need to be done in our daily lives to keep the household running, which take time, effort, and skill, but which we don’t get paid for. Despite the ever-increasing numbers of women in the workforce, research repeatedly shows that on average, women still perform significantly more of the unpaid domestic work around the home. This means that many women are not only managing part-time or full-time income earning work, but are also making greater non-financial contributions for the benefit of the relationship or the family. In Australian family law, it is recognised that the unpaid contributions made by a person who is the primary home-maker and caregiver carry equal weight to the financial contributions made by the primary income earner. One of the factors informing this principle is the view that the primary income earner is generally being supported by their partner to continue earning an income and further their career by virtue of the fact that they are required to do less at home.
Unpaid domestic labour is also relevant to the assessment of future needs. A person who bears the onus of caring for children has less time available to dedicate to earning an income and building a career, or must juggle the two, with one often coming at the expense of the other. Furthermore, for those who have taken a significant period of time out of the workforce during a relationship to be the primary homemaker and caregiver, it will be harder for them to re-enter the workforce and to reestablish financial independence. In addition, their time away from income-earning has most likely also meant a lack of superannuation, and they will therefore have far less by way of entitlements than their income-earning spouse.
It can be difficult to measure what each person’s non-financial contributions throughout a relationship have been, and it would be artificial and tedious to try to track or keep record of them (not to mention, completely unromantic), but it can be helpful to understand why questions about unpaid domestic labour are important in the context of a relationship breakdown.