Tell Me a Riddle: Who Works and Who Doesn’t?
Consider Tendai, a young girl in the Lowveld, in Zimbabwe. Her day starts at 4 a.m. when, to fetch water, she carries a thirty litre tin to a borehole about eleven kilometres from her home. She walks barefoot and is home by 9 a.m. She eats a little and proceeds to fetch firewood until midday. She cleans the utensils from the family’s morning meal and sits preparing a lunch of sadza for the family. After lunch and the cleaning of the dishes, she wanders in the hot sun until early evening, fetching wild vegetables for supper before making the evening trip for water. Her day ends at 9 p.m., after she has prepared supper and put her younger brothers and sisters to sleep. Tendai is considered unproductive, unoccupied, and economically inactive. According to the international economic system, Tendai does not work and is not part of the labour force.
Cathy, a young, middle-class North American housewife, spends her days preparing food, setting the table, serving meals, clearing food and dishes from the table, washing dishes, dressing her children, disciplining children, taking the children to day-care or to school, disposing of garbage, dusting, gathering clothes for washing, doing the laundry, going to the gas station and the supermarket, repairing household items, ironing, keeping an eye on or playing with the children, making beds, paying bills, caring for pets and plants, putting away toys, books and clothes, sewing or mending or knitting, talking with door-to-door salespeople, answering the telephone, vacuuming, sweeping and washing floors, cutting the grass, weeding, and shovelling snow, cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen, and putting her children to bed. Cathy has to face the fact that she fills her time in a totally unproductive manner. She, too, is economically inactive, and economists record her as unoccupied.
Ben is a highly trained member of the U.S. military. His regular duty is to descent to an underground facility where he waits with a colleague, for hours at a time, for an oder to fire a nuclear missile. So skilled and effective is Ben that if his colleague were to attempt to subvert an order to fire, Ben would, if all else failed, be expected to kill him to ensure a successful missile launch. Ben is in paid work; he is economically active. His work has value and contributes, as part of the nuclear machine, to the nation’s growth, wealth, and productivity. That’s what the international economic system says.
Mario is a pimp and heroin addict in Rome. He regularly pays graft. While Mario’s services and his consumption and production are illegal, they are, nonetheless, marketed. Money changes hands. Mario’s activities are part of Italy’s hidden economy. But in a nation’s bookkeeping, not all transactions are accounted for. A government treasury or a reserve bank measures the money supply and sees that more money is in circulation than has been reported in legitimate business activities. Thus some nations, including Italy, regularly impute a minimal value for the hidden economy in their national accounts. So part of Mario’s illegal services and production and consumption activities will be recognised and recorded. That’s what the international economic system says.
Ben and Mario work. Cathy and Tendai do not. Those are the rules. I believe that women all over the world, with lives as diverse as those of Cathy and Tendai, are economically productive. You, too, may believe these women work full days. But according to the theory, science, profession, practice and institutionalisation of economics, we are wrong.
Marilyn Waring, Counting for Nothing:What Men Value and what Women are Worth, 1988