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Unpaid and reproductive labour: a key site of struggle for the trade union movement

We need to investigate and better understand the value of women’s unpaid labour, writes AMY WARD

THE overwhelming vote for Repeal of the Eighth Amendment represents a cathartic, watershed moment for Irish society. 
But the result should not be seen as Ireland’s coming of age, as its entry into the modern world or as a gift conferred on us by the Establishment parties with the blessing of the liberal commentariat. 

Instead it has to be understood as the product of sustained and determined struggle by thousands of predominantly working class women over the past 35 years, with the support of allies in the progressive trade union movement, in communities and on the political left. 

Their job seemingly done, the political Establishment and the economic interests it serves will now return to business as usual — the business of low wages and precarious work, rising wealth and income inequality, industrial scale corporate tax avoidance, homelessness, property speculation and rack-renting, two-tier and crises-ridden healthcare, systemic abuse and cover-ups and endemic police corruption. 

But having decisively broken the moral authority of the Catholic Church, stemmed the tide of attacks on women’s rights and invigorated an entire generation of young people across the island, many involved with the Repeal campaign will now be looking to push on. 

Already the Tories are coming under intense pressure to decriminalise abortion in the North in the face of DUP resistance, while the accompanying campaign for marriage equality too raises the unfulfilled demand of “British rights for British citizens” first articulated in the 1960s. 

In the South, the next phase for the Repeal movement is securing the proper legislative provisions for abortion and there are questions to be asked about access for those in receipt of medical cards, without which, reproductive rights will remain a class issue. 

Others are turning their attention to the church’s grip on education, which is anathema to the fundamental republican principle of church and state separation and, as we know, has caused untold damage to the lives of Irish children. 

Still others are keen to use the momentum achieved by the campaign to build and mobilise a movement capable of transforming Irish society, to challenge existing social and economic relations and, against the backdrop of Brexit and Unionist intransigence, to create something anew.

Whatever transpires in the coming months and years, we can be sure that Ireland has entered a new historical moment ripe with possibilities for profound change. 

One issue that is both pertinent to the current conjuncture and neglected as a potential site of struggle for the trade union movement is that of unpaid and reproductive labour — ie the unpaid work that takes place outside the sphere of production yet is fundamental to Irish capitalist survival and accumulation.

Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution reads: “The state recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The state shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” 

In other words, women shall be instructed by legislation and cultural norms established by the church, state and economic and political elites to engage primarily in the gendered tasks of cooking, cleaning, caring etc, both to the detriment of their participation in the workplace and without due recognition that such tasks themselves constitute important forms of labour. 

Over the past century women in Ireland have struggled against the established gendered and class relations that have seen them confined to the home or, worse still, forced into Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes where they slaved in appalling conditions, for no pay and under the constant threat of abuse. 

While these struggles have brought about significant advances, the social, economic and cultural dynamics that reinforce gendered (and class) roles persist. 

One manifestation of this is the fact that, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development national time use surveys, Irish women carry out more than 70 per cent of unpaid work. 

To this it should be added that the majority of these women are likely to be from working-class backgrounds, unable as they are to afford the costs of childcare and other domestic supports. 

This figure compares unfavourably with other small open economies and peer countries in northern Europe, where high-quality state-sponsored childcare provision, state support for those with caring responsibilities and different social norms are among the factors enabling more balanced gender participation in the labour market. 

This situation has been exacerbated through austerity, with the decimation of key public services, the removal of income supports for lone parents and carers, and the increasingly low-wage and precarious nature of employment in Ireland. And while the South was previously home to a half-arsed welfare state, with a special role reserved for the church and charities, we are seeing the increasing privatisation of social reproduction from welfare and pensions to social care and children’s services. 

This leads to two main considerations for the Irish trade union movement. The first is that we need to investigate and better understand the value of unpaid and reproductive labour in Ireland. A ground-breaking study published by the Office for National Statistics in 2014 shows that total unpaid work in the UK had a value of £1.01 trillion, equivalent to 56 per cent of GDP. 

The study shows that women put in more than double the proportion of paid work when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework, while also revealing that people on lower incomes tended to carry out more unpaid work than other income brackets. 

A similar study conducted in an Irish context would provide a more rounded picture of the nature of unpaid and socially reproductive labour, its role in sustaining Irish capitalism and its associated inequalities. 

The second thing to consider is how we might advance policy solutions that compensate unpaid labour, ensure that capital begins to shoulder the cost for social reproduction and ultimately have a transformative impact on Irish society. 

A useful starting point might be for the trade union movement and political left to initiate a national conversation around a universal public childcare system, something that has been advocated in the past by Unite, Right2Change, Independents4Change, among others, and most recently endorsed by the Irish Congress of Trade Union’s women’s conference in March this year. 

This has the potential to unite trade unions and communities, the low-paid and the unemployed, migrant and “homegrown” workers, all in pursuit of an objective that will reduce the burden of unpaid labour, reduce gender and class inequalities, remove a significant barrier to employment and contribute to the common good.

These are steps that would improve people’s lives while beginning to address the basis and logic of Irish capitalism itself. As such they would build on and seek to honour the considerable achievements of the Repeal movement. 

Amy Ward is a researcher, trade union member and student currently living in Belfast. She is a founder member of, the only Traveller Gypsy-led organisation in Britain and Northern Ireland. You can follow her on Twitter @amyward82.


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