Unpaid work fulfils many important functions that directly affect the well-being and quality of people's lives and covers a variety of activities such as voluntary work, domestic work, and caring for others. Unpaid work in the household and voluntary work in the community also make a substantial contribution to the national economy and to Australian society. The value of unpaid work in Australia has been estimated in Unpaid Work and the Australian Economy, 1997 (cat. no. 5240.0) as equivalent to almost half (48%) of Australia's Gross Domestic Product.

The 2006 Census was the first time questions on unpaid work were included in an Australian Census and they have been repeated in the 2011 Census. Four questions were asked in the Census form to cover different forms of unpaid work undertaken by persons aged 15 years or older. These questions are separate from the labour force questions. Each question related to a different timeframe to best suit respondent recall, and this can affect comparability between the questions. In selecting the timeframes, consideration was given to issues such as respondent recall, and comparability of data between states and territories and with other sources of data. People were asked to indicate in broad ranges the number of hours spent doing unpaid domestic work, but were not asked about time spent on the other types of unpaid work.

The questions and their timeframes were:
  • Time spent on unpaid domestic work for their household in the last week.
  • Time spent on providing unpaid care, help or assistance to persons with a disability, a long-term illness or problems related to old age, in the last two weeks.
  • Time spent on providing unpaid care to their own or other people's children aged less than 15 years in the last two weeks.
  • Time spent on unpaid voluntary work through an organisation or group, in the last twelve months.

Unpaid Domestic Work: Number of Hours (DOMP)

This question on unpaid domestic work collected information on unpaid work done for the person's own household and collected information on the number of hours spent on doing unpaid domestic work. This information on the 'number of hours' spent was collected in ranges (see Figure 1) and referred to the week prior to the Census to assist recall of the amount of time spent on these activities.

Question 48 as it appeared on the 2011 Census Household Form
Image of question 48 from the 2011 Census
A text only version of this question is also available.

Further to the instructions in the question (see Figure 1), the Census Guide asked people to include all domestic work that the person did without pay, in their own home and in other places, for themselves and their household. However, they were told not to include any domestic work that was done as part of any paid employment.

A factor which could affect the quality of the data was the difficulty people may have estimating the exact amount of time spent on unpaid domestic work. For this reason, broad ranges of hours were included. The ranges were used mainly to distinguish between those persons whose main activity was housework and those persons who did relatively little or no housework. Another factor which could affect the quality of the data is the respondent's perceptions of whether the activities they are undertaking are domestic work or another activity.

Unpaid Assistance to a Person with a Disability (UNCAREP)

This question asked about care or assistance provided to another person to assist with daily activities because of disability, long term illness or problems related to old age in the two weeks prior to the Census. No information on the amount of time spent on providing such unpaid care was collected.

Question 49 as it appeared on the 2011 Census Household Form
Image of question 49 from the 2011 Census
A text only version of this question is also available.

Further to instructions in the question (see Figure 2), the Census Guide defined that unpaid care includes, but is not limited to, bathing, dressing, toileting and feeding; helping someone to move around; helping someone be understood by others; providing emotional support and helping maintain friendships and social activities; helping with or supervising medication; dressing wounds; cleaning, laundry, cooking, managing diets and meal preparation; housework, light household repairs or maintenance, and household finances; driving or accompanying someone to appointments or activities.

Unpaid Child Care (CHCAREP)

This question collected information on care provided for children aged less than 15 years of age in the two weeks prior to the Census. This period of time (rather than a longer period) was chosen to avoid school holidays which occur at different times in different states and territories. This was a multi-response question, allowing for care to both a respondent's own children and other children to be reported; however no information on the amount of time spent on providing such unpaid child care was collected.

Question 50 as it appeared on the 2011 Census Household Form
Image of question 50 from the 2011 Census
A text only version of this question is also available.

The question was designed to capture all types of unpaid child care, including care for grandchildren, and children of relatives, friends and neighbours. However, childcare given through an organisation or club was not included and would be reported as voluntary work.

An issue which could affect the data quality is respondent interpretation of 'own child'. Primary carers such as grandparents, uncles or aunts may feel that a grandchild, niece or nephew (or other relative) is their 'own child' rather than an 'other' child. Another factor which may impact on the quality of the data is the respondent's perception of whether or not they are providing care when undertaking various activities (e.g. undertaking domestic activities while keeping an eye on children, preparing a meal for the entire family including children, etc.).

Voluntary Work for an Organisation or Group (VOLWP)

This question refers to voluntary work undertaken in the twelve months prior to the Census to include those people who may do voluntary work on an irregular basis as well as those who do it more regularly. However, no information on the amount of time spent on this type of unpaid work was collected.

Question 51 as it appeared on the 2011 Census Household Form
Image of question 51 from the 2011 Census
A text only version of this question is also available.

Further to the instructions in the question (Figure 4), the Census Guide directed people to include help willingly given in the form of time, service or skills to a club, organisation or association. Unpaid voluntary work can include assisting at organised events and with sports organisations; helping with organised school events and activities; assisting in churches, hospitals, nursing homes and charities; and other kinds of volunteer work (e.g. emergency services, serving on a committee for a club, etc.).

Using Unpaid Work data

Small area Census data on the characteristics of people who carry out various kinds of unpaid work can assist in the planning of local facilities, services such as day-care and occasional care, and in the provision of information and support to carers. The data can help in understanding the way Australian men and women and their families balance their paid work with other important aspects of their lives, such as family and community commitments. Balancing paid and unpaid work responsibilities, particularly those related to caring for family members and others, is an important issue which features strongly in negotiations on workplace conditions.

The data collected on unpaid work in the Census covers broader information on whether people have done any unpaid work. Time spent on unpaid work was only collected for unpaid domestic work and not for other types of unpaid work. Comprehensive data on unpaid work can be obtained through other ABS surveys such as the Time Use Survey. Other ABS surveys which cover various aspects of unpaid work include the Childhood Education and Care Survey, the Voluntary Work Survey (for 2006 and 2010 this has been included as a module in the General Social Survey), the Disability, Ageing and Carers Survey, and the Survey of Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation. However, these surveys do not provide information for small areas and small population groups. The data from the Census questions, together with information from these ABS Surveys, can be used for further analysis of unpaid work, characteristics of people who carry out various kinds of unpaid work and its contribution to the national economy.

However, care should be taken when comparing Census data on unpaid work with data from these surveys as there may be scope differences. For example, data on providing unpaid child care from the Childhood Education and Care Survey covers informal care of children aged 12 years and under, whereas the Census data for this question include children aged under 15 years.