Championing workers’ rights at a Nissan plant in Mississippi: Will international labour standards stand the test?

John Tarver, communications expert and founder of Atriptyc Communications, John can be contacted at [email protected]

Morris Mock used to be a small-town guy with a simple life. He is the son of a preacher and lives in Pearl, Mississippi where he enjoys eating out and going to church with his wife and daughter. A few years ago, his biggest claims to fame were singing in the church choir and being notoriously recognizable for the red baseball cap that rarely leaves his head.

Today that’s changed. Morris still sings in the choir but he also appears regularly in local, national and international media with the likes of Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover, the American Senator Bernie Sanders, and Members of the French Parliament. What’s the reason for this change? He has become a brave spokesperson for his colleagues at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi who want to form a union but the plant’s management has been using intimidation tactics and threats to keep workers from voting to unionize.

For over a decade, workers at the Mississippi plant have struggled to overcome management’s intimidation and scare tactics. Workers claim that management has threatened to fire employees who show interest in or share information about unions. Management has also stated that union activity could lead to the plant’s closure.

Nissan has partnered with Renault in a global joint venture.  The CEO of this Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn claims the company has no problems with unions – after all, it works with unions all over the world. However, evidence shows that management uses intimidation and anti-union videos to dissuade workers from holding a fair election to unionize.

So why don’t the workers hold a vote? “The workers are so scared.” Says Morris. “A lot of them support the union. But even with a majority, there is still too much fear, too many threats, too much intimidation.”

Threatening to fire workers for unionizing is illegal in the United States. In 2014, the U.S. National Labor Rights Board, after its own independent investigation, issued a complaint against Nissan for violating workers’ rights when a supervisor threatened to fire employees for being openly pro-union. This complaint is all the more significant since: only six percent of workers’ charges resulted in a Board complaint in 2014. Nissan has said it would continue to defend itself against this complaint.

Two months later, Renault-Nissan’s CEO, Mr. Ghosn, testified before the French Parliament’s Economic Affair’s Commission. Renault is the largest shareholder of Nissan, and the two are rapidly converging key business functions. The French government is the largest shareholder of Renault. When asked in a meeting of the French parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee about the situation at the Mississippi plant, Mr. Ghosn said that the plant respected American labor laws.

Morris met with parliamentarians in France – and with national labor groups – in hopes of receiving support and to participate in protests. His newly found PR skills are working. A group of 35 French MPs and Members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to Mr. Ghosn asking him to explain the state of affairs in Canton. That was in early 2016; they are still waiting for a reply.

In between meetings with elected officials, Morris has been learning about international initiatives that are meant to protect workers from intimidation and threats. One such initiative is the United Nations Global Compact, of which Renault and Nissan are participants. In Nissan’s 2016 Sustainability Report, Mr. Ghosn recalled, “We… continued our decade-long commitment to the core principles of the United Nations Global Compact.” Principle 3 of the compact states that “Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”.

So, is Nissan living up to its commitment to international standards in pursuing an aggressive campaign against workers’ freedom of association? It would appear not. When asked about the discord between their actions in Mississippi and their commitment to international standards, Nissan replied that “international labor standards … do not apply to private enterprises like Nissan. Rather, they apply to governments, which then use them as guidance to structure national law.” This certainly raises the question why businesses such as Nissan have formally committed to the principles of the Global Compact.

Another set of international guidelines has come to Morris’ attention: the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (MNE). Two labor organizations filed an OECD complaint that was accepted by the U. S. State Department’s national contact point; the contact point helps resolve non-compliance issues related to the guidelines.  While the State Department found that the issues raised were substantiated, Nissan refused the State Department’s offer to mediate “because long-established guidelines for bringing a union vote already exist”.

Morris and his colleagues haven’t let that discourage them. Their supporters at international labor organizations have filed OECD MNE complaints against the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Nissan and Renault in The Netherlands, Japan and France, where the three entities are respectively incorporated. They are hoping the companies live up to their commitments and undertake real human rights due diligence.

While waiting to find out if the OECD complaints are accepted, Morris and his colleagues staged the largest labor rights demonstration held in Mississippi since the 1960s.  Joined by Danny Glover, Senator Bernie Sanders and several thousand people in Mississippi, they came together on March 4 to demand that Nissan respect the workers’ fundamental right to form a union. From Paris and Brussels, French and European members of parliament sent strong messages of support for their cause. The workers reported that intimidation tactics intensified in the lead up to the protest. There was even a new video that aired in the plant to dissuade workers from attending.

Most people are aware of the long and violent history of voter suppression in Mississippi. Morris lives close to where Medgar Wiley Evers was assassinated for his activity in favor of voters’ rights, and only a few hours’ drive from where Martin Luther King met with the same fate for supporting labor rights. Morris sees his struggle as a continuation of Mr. Evers’ and Dr. King’s efforts.

Yet despite all of this, when Morris talks about his company, he remains very objective, even respectful of his employer. “This is the poorest state in the country, and Nissan is paying good money—for Mississippi, but we still need to educate folks. The worker needs a voice in the workplace.”

Amen to that.

Useful links

OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises


What do Americans know about retirement and what do they expect?

The other Franklin signing the Social Security Act

 Joanne Yoong, University of Southern California Center for Economic and Social Research

In a letter to his friend Jean Baptiste LeRoy in 1789, the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes”. Franklin’s letter far predated the United States’ Social Security Act of 1935, which set up a social insurance programme for American workers, providing them with at least some degree of certainty about income after retirement. But, in today’s environment, to what degree do Americans feel secure about their retirement? How well do they understand their own role and that of Social Security in contributing to retirement security?

Researchers at USC conducted a new study in 2016 to collect data on American’s understanding of retirement preparedness and the perceived role of Social Security. A special-purpose survey was designed and fielded as part of the Understanding America Study (UAS), a panel of approximately 6,000 individuals aged 18 or over representing the entire United States.[1] The  survey results highlight a worryingly-low level of retirement–related financial literacy.

Seventy percent of survey respondents are relatively uncertain about their retirement-related financial literacy, rating themselves either “somewhat” or “not too” knowledgeable. More worryingly, both self-assessed and actual knowledge of retirement-related financial principles are lower compared to the 2009 results. This is consistent with findings reported by Annamaria Lusardi from the US National Financial Capability Study, which found that basic financial literacy has been declining in each survey wave since 2009. Just as worryingly, disparities in knowledge by age, income and education remain present across all our measures of knowledge and preparedness, with Hispanics and Blacks at a particular disadvantage relative to non-Hispanic Whites.

The survey also shows that respondents are more pessimistic about Social Security, in comparison to the 2009 study. In particular, most respondents do not feel confident in the future ability of the Social Security system to pay their promised benefits, and a majority expect the Social Security system to fall short of providing enough for a reasonable standard of living.

Results also suggest a clear gap between respondents’ expectations about Social Security, and their actual understanding of how it works, suggesting that many Americans may not be maximising their benefits, or may not even be aware of their full entitlements.  While most people are able to identify the general features of the Social Security system, a sizable group do not grasp critical details relevant to the impact of their own benefit claiming choices. About a quarter of future beneficiaries mistakenly believe that benefits need to be claimed at the time of retirement, while one in five are unaware that claiming early can reduce benefits. Just over 10% are not aware of disability entitlements, almost 20% are unaware of survivor benefits for children, and almost 40% do not know that spousal benefits can be claimed even if they do not have children.

Combined with the findings of the OECD/INFE Survey of Adult Financial Literacy Competencies on the correlation between financial knowledge and retirement planning, the UAS results suggest the potential for further negative effects.

Previous research has established a causal relationship between financial literacy and long-term planning.[2]  This new study reinforces that becoming and staying informed is a decision in itself that poses its own challenges.

Most UAS respondents feel that it is very important for the Social Security Administration to educate people about how to prepare financially for retirement. When asked to assess different sources of information, UAS respondents were most likely to trust the accuracy of retirement-related information either from Social Security or financial professionals. However, in practice, they most often turn to their social networks or receive information from their employers, rather than proactively seeking information from these trusted sources. A pragmatic and forward-looking financial education policy therefore requires working with diverse groups of both private and public stakeholders, not only to provide the right information but also to prevent the spread of wrong information.

How will policy makers and practitioners know which strategies are most effective at reaching which consumers, and how effective they are at altering behavior or financial outcomes?

Some of the responses to these questions may be found in the 2016 OECD Pensions Outlook. In parallel, recent data collection efforts such as the NCFS and the UAS and, more generally, the OECD/INFE survey that are focused on tracking both financial knowledge and behavior are helping to generate new and relevant findings. The ability to follow individuals over time, and to link financial knowledge to other types of knowledge and behavior is equally essential.  Matching survey responses to actual financial transactions data and re-administering modules regularly will allow assessment of behavioral changes as well as the respondents’ financial status over the longer-term as the economic and policy environment evolves.

For now, it is important to support both initiatives that aim to improve retirement preparedness as well as sustained investments in measurement and evaluation to ensure that such initiatives are effective. It may be impossible to provide absolute certainty about financial well-being in old age, but more can certainly be done to ensure that expectations are properly aligned and that Americans are making informed decisions about retirement, including decisions about their own Social Security benefits.

Useful links

OECD/INFE Survey of Adult Financial Literacy Competencies

2016 OECD Pensions Outlook

US National Financial Capability Study

“ What do people know about Social Security?

The Economic Importance of Financial Literacy: Theory and Evidence

Launch of the OECD PISA financial literacy assessment of students, 24 May 2017

[1] The UAS panel is Internet-based, which means that respondents answer surveys on a computer, tablet, or smart phone, wherever they are and whenever they wish to participate. While most panel members have their own Internet access, those who do not are provided with Internet access by USC. Surveys are designed by research teams around the world and final datasets are posted on the USC website with sample weights. A number of these surveys, including ours, focus on economic and financial decision-making. These areas are also highlighted in the work carried out by the OECD/INFE.

[2] See Lusardi and Mitchell, “The Economic Importance of Financial Literacy: Theory and Evidence,” Journal of Economic Literature, March 2014, vol. 52(1), pp. 5-44.

Belief in Business

Richard Howitt,  Chief Executive of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and member of the B20 Task Force on Energy, Climate and Resource Efficiency

A recurrent theme throughout this week’s OECD-B20-BIAC High Level Session on global economic governance was ‘disbelief’.

Policy makers are shocked by the fundamental challenge to their arguments for the benefits of international investment, free trade and open markets.

Populations in OECD countries and beyond were repeatedly said to be involved in a ‘backlash against globalisation,’ a populist revolt apparently sweeping the world.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría berated a growth in global inequality which he acknowledged dates back decades, but said makes the support for international collaboration by those of us in the B20 group of international business leaders at this time “not just welcome but indispensable.”

In the face of the debate about ‘fake news’ and attempts to dismiss all value in expertise, this week’s 300-strong global gathering heard a strong call from governmental representatives for the OECD to remain a ‘house of evidence.’

OECD Director of Trade and Agriculture Ken Ash accepted the challenge, but argued that in the current climate, aggregate statistics would not be persuasive. It is necessary to wage “granular arguments that work while having your hair cut or in the coffee shop,” he said.

In my own contribution to the session on responsibility, trust and inter-connectedness, I stressed that this same argument applies not just to governments and to international institutions, but to businesses too.

I explained how ‘Integrated Reporting’ and the ‘integrated thinking’ which accompanies it, provides this broader, connected and more accessible approach to business reporting.

It is our mission to make integration the global norm in corporate reporting, backed by some significant endorsements from G20 Governments, the United Nations and within the OECD itself.

The OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development welcomed the advances made in Integrated Reporting; the OECD Forum on Responsible Business Conduct called for its improved application; and currently the IIRC is assisting the OECD in its work on developing metrics which measure business impact on people’s well-being.

The G20 Summit in Germany later this year will be invited to endorse the Financial Stability Board Task Force, which itself recommends that climate risk is integrated in company financial planning and reporting.

The case for Integrated Reporting involves the transition to low carbon growth not simply being considered as a potential cost to business, but also as a potential source of value creation too.

We say the same of other ‘capitals’ all too often considered to be external to the company in the current short-term approach to financial reporting. People, ideas and societal relationships have an equal potential to contribute to business success with a broader, longer-term perspective.

The movement towards integration echoes the call at this week’s High Level meeting from the Chair of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee at the OECD, Siemens’ senior executive Klaus Moosmayer, who said the BIAC is championing a more ‘holistic’ approach.

“We need more lighthouse examples for good communication, not only talking about risks, but opportunities too,” he agreed.

“This has to apply to business communications too. We need more integrated policies,” added Ash.

For me, the call for ‘inclusive globalisation’ which promotes international cooperation, but seeks to ensure that the benefits which follow are equitably shared, has to be the right approach.

1 500 global companies are now choosing to ‘tell their story’ through an integrated approach.

It is reporting which is not simply an advertisement of their social responsibility.  Nor is it restricted to meeting the compliance requirements of the regulator.

Integrated Reporting is the intelligent way for companies to remain competitive in a new era, where investors perceive different long-term risks, in the world of ‘multi-capitals’ and above all of new citizen expectations.

This week the OECD said that the world must adapt to meet those new challenges.

I say that businesses must make a contribution to achieving that aim.

Useful links

The Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC)

B20 recommendations for G20 Sherpa Meeting

OECD and the G20

The IIRC is launching a two-month comment period aimed at listening to and learning from the market. They’re inviting public feedback until April 30 2017 on critical incentives and barriers to applying the International Framework. Click here for the “Invitation to comment”.

Diffuse water pollution: an invisible and growing threat

Hannah Leckie, Water Policy Analyst, OECD Environment Directorate

On 22 March each year the world turns its attention to the global water crisis on the occasion of World Water Day. Water policies around the world are in need of urgent reform. Water – an essential natural resource on which all life depends – has become a global garbage can.

You wouldn’t think you could kill a freshwater ecosystem or an ocean, would you? But the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems has been degraded more than any other ecosystem. And more than 400 dead zones have been identified in the world’s oceans. Pollution is a major driver of such damage.

The effects of water pollution imperil not only ecosystems, but also human lives and economic growth. At least half the world’s population suffers from polluted water. Millions of people die each year due to water-related diseases. Pollution hotspots occur in all parts of the world, including OECD countries, where current pollution costs exceed billions of dollars each year.

The situation is set to worsen. Population growth and climate change are placing increasing pressure on the ability of finite water bodies to process wastewater, nutrients and other pollutants before they lose their life-supporting function. This will, in turn, increase risks to human health, economic development and ecosystems.

While we have seen decades of regulation and investment in wastewater treatment plants in OECD countries, with substantial gains for the economy, human health, environment and social values, there are still significant problems stemming from water pollution. Emerging and developing economies are yet to make such progress.

The most difficult part of the job remains to be done: addressing invisible and indirect sources of water pollution. Known as “diffuse pollution”, examples include urban storm water runoff into rivers; sulphur dioxide emissions to the air from fossil fuel combustion causing acid rain and acidification of lakes; and nutrients and pesticides washing off land into surface water or through the soil to groundwater.

Controlling diffuse sources of water pollution is particularly challenging. The reasons, as the OECD report on Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions puts it: the complexity of controlling multiple pollutants from multiple sources; their high variability in space and in time; associated management and regulation costs; and limited political acceptability of regulatory measures.

Valuable policy options are emerging in a number of countries and these deserve greater attention, adaptation, replication, and scaling up. In Korea, the government has set periodic phosphorus and dissolved oxygen reduction targets and has assigned pollution load limits using water quality modelling. Denmark and Norway have implemented pesticide taxes to control the toxicity of pesticides used. In the United Kingdom, a novel Government Support Package was developed to attract private financiers and reduce insurance liabilities to deliver the Thames Tideway Tunnel project – a major construction project to intercept and treat London’s sewer overflows. The Lake Taupo nitrogen cap and trade scheme in New Zealand is a policy that gives farmers the ability to buy and sell their established nutrient allocations without going over the overall catchment limit. In Germany, the water provider for Munich has established a voluntary payment scheme with local farmers to encourage the adoption of more sustainable organic low-cost farming practices and avoid a high-cost upgrade of drinking water treatment facilities.

Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters presents a risk-based policy framework that can assist policy makers and stakeholders through the myriad of decisions required to establish new, or alter existing, water quality management regimes. Central government has a critical role to play in the transition to more effective management of the risks from diffuse water pollution. This includes strong over-arching regulatory frameworks, stakeholder engagement, and money allocated to initiate experimental projects. In doing so, government sends the right signals to local authorities, stakeholders and investors, and minimises the cost of water quality management for society as a whole.

If we are serious about cutting water pollution, many other sectoral policy frameworks need to be aligned. For example, policies that support agriculture production, fossil fuel use and irrigation can lead to harmful and costly impacts to water quality.

Improving water quality is a critical element of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, fulfilling an essential role in reducing poverty and disease and promoting sustainable growth. Without significant attention to this invisible and growing threat, the future deterioration of water quality poses a major risk to freshwater ecosystems and the people that depend on them. To pretend otherwise would be to sell the citizens of the world – and the environment – down the river.

Useful links

To learn more, join the OECD Green Talks: LIVE on “Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions to Diffuse Pollution”, 13:00 CEST, 6 April 2017. Register today to join the livestream.

Access the report Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions

Read the OECD Council Recommendation on Water

For more information on OECD’s work on water, see:

Addressing the imbalance between investment protection and people protection: Making globalisation work for all

Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

We are facing a backlash against globalisation. This has gone hand in hand with a push back against investment treaties and trade agreements: just watch the election campaigns and the downfall of TTIP and TPP negotiations.

Nowadays, at the OECD many policymakers talk about “Making globalisation work for all”. If we really want to achieve this, policymakers have to take another critical look at the following.

A number of people have argued that investment policy today is marked by an imbalance between investor rights and investor responsibilities. I would frame it slightly differently.

We have developed investment protection of foreign investment because of states with failing policies and inadequate legal systems to safeguard investor rights. In regions where courts are dysfunctional, corrupt, politically biased or incompetent, foreign investors want extraterritorial protection. Fair point.

A related issue is that some people are victims of foreign economic activities. They also lack protection and remedy because of the exact same reasons: failing policies and weak legal systems. However, they do not have access to extraterritorial protection of their rights. So there is a fundamental asymmetry between investment protection and people protection. There is hard protection of investments and soft protection of people. Why do we protect investments with hard law and protect people with soft law? We have no credible answers.

This imbalance is fuelling two trends: a declining support for investment protection, which even undermines trade policy in general and free trade agreements in particular, and on the other hand societal and political pressures towards mandatory legislation on responsible business conduct, such as the recent due diligence law in France and the modern slavery act in the UK. It has also led to discussions in the UN on a binding treaty on business and human rights.

This topic will not disappear from the agenda. The imbalance will haunt policymakers for decades.

There should be at least two responses in my view: first, strengthening access to remedy for people, for example by strengthening the National Contact Points for responsible business conduct under the OECD Guidelines, and second, making investment protection more responsible. The inclusion of aspirational provisions on corporate social responsibility and cooperation in this field will not do the trick. It will only lead to accusations of “greenwashing” investment treaties.

Are there feasible options? Yes there are. We have seen recent precedents to make investment protection more responsible. Not all of them are easy or without controversy, but worth exploring.

One option is to exclude sectors that are considered as not responsible. There is a precedent for this approach: the TPP exemption of tobacco products from protection. This is controversial and the question remains whether this the way forward: will the coal sector be excluded in the future too?

A second option could include a provision ensuring that only those investors that comply with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are assured protection under such a treaty. This would be very complex from a procedural point of view, but not impossible.

A third option, which is more easily conceivable, is to exclude protection for investments that are linked to corruption and egregious human rights violations. This would be nothing more than “codifying” the “clean hands doctrine” that is already accepted by several arbitration tribunals. In the cases Metal-Tech Ltd v the Republic of Uzbekistan and World Duty Free Company Limited v The Republic of Kenya (2006) the tribunal excluded jurisdiction because of corruption related to the investment.[1]

A fourth feasible option worth exploring is to include a provision that specifies that material breaches of the OECD Guidelines – for example severe human rights violations  –  are taken into account by a tribunal when deciding on the merits of a claim or on potential damages awarded.

Of course these ideas are controversial and complex. It takes investment policymakers and treaty negotiators out of their comfort zone. As a former investment negotiator myself it even makes me uneasy, but we have to explore these options further. This is not impossible: precedents are available. Doing so requires political will and action is urgent. Why? Because we must respond to the backlash against investment and trade policy and make globalisation work for all.

Useful links

OECD Conference on investment treaties: The quest for balance between investor protection and governments’ right to regulate 14 March 2016, Paris

The growing pains of investment treaties OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Insights

[1] Metal-Tech Ltd v Republic of Uzbekistan (2013):  para110 iii ‘clean hands doctrine’165 &166; 236,237; 243; 372; World Duty Free Company Limited v The Republic of Kenya (2006):

Women in the Judiciary: What solutions to advance gender-responsive and gender-diverse justice systems?

Towards Gender Equality Before the Law. Agenda

Kate Brooks, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

In recent decades, the number of women in the judiciary has significantly increased worldwide. In many countries around half of law students are women, and 2014 data shows that women in OECD countries make up more than 54% of professional judges. But women are still vastly underrepresented in top-ranking judicial positions including on High Court benches and other senior roles in the legal profession. What are the obstacles to women’s legal leadership? How can we overcome them?

In 2015 the UK’s only female Supreme Court judge, Baroness Hale, criticised all-male appointments. Hale has been a strong advocate of improving diversity, questioning whether an element of positive discrimination may eventually be needed to redress gender imbalance. Increasing gender balance on high court benches helps to preserve the legitimacy of the courts as representative of the societies that they serve and enables courts to understand the real-world implications of their rulings. Enhancing gender diversity in the justice system helps maintain public confidence, reduces barriers to women’s access to justice, such as stigma associated with reporting violence and abuse, and ensures a more balanced approach to enforcing the law. A higher presence of women jurists is vital to ensuring the implementation and safeguarding of equality rights. Courts that operate free of gender bias and other forms of discriminatory practices can be powerful drivers of social change.

The under-representation of women in high-level courts partly relates to horizontal gender segregation in the judiciary in OECD countries. Usually, women tend to be better represented in family and other first-instance courts, resulting in fewer women being promoted into upper courts. On average, women hold 45.9% of Presidencies in Courts of First Instance, 28% in Courts of Second Instance, and 18.6% in Supreme Courts (CEPEJ 2016).

The barriers faced by women in the judiciary are similar to those encountered in other areas of public life. In addition to challenges in balancing work/life commitments, persisting gender stereotypes, lack of development opportunities and gender bias in promotions; stringent requirements for judicial appointments and selection methods tend to impede women from becoming top judges.

Since women are often successful at gaining entry into the legal profession but progress slowly into senior posts, re-visiting the corporate culture and working conditions, and introducing mentorship schemes are necessary considerations. Regardless of government policies, leadership and independent monitoring of outcomes are essential components to ensure a more diverse judiciary.

Note: Data not available for Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States‌
Source: European judicial systems Efficiency and quality of justice, CEPEJ STUDIES No. 23 (Edition 2016, 2014 data)

The 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life provides a range of options to enable equal access to leadership opportunities- including in the judiciary. It includes measures to strengthen institutional capacities for effective governance and the mainstreaming of gender equality across all policy areas. The OECD continues to work to support countries in addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality in public life. A toolkit to guide both members and non-members is currently in development.

On March 10 high-level government officials and non-governmental experts will share their experiences and views on how countries can better respond to the needs of women and girls by linking gender equality perspectives with improved access to justice. The event is open to the public.

Useful links

OECD Event on Gender Equality before the Law

 Women in government

OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Women in Public Life; Gender, Law and Policy in the Middle East and North Africa

Female breadwinners sweep the crumbs, too

Valerie Frey and Lucy Hulett, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

It’s 11:00 on Saturday morning. Both you and your partner had exhausting weeks at work, and so far the day has been spent preparing and cleaning up breakfast, wrangling children out of pyjamas and into real clothes, and running to the store for yogurt and bananas. Your kids are finally playing quietly with Lego bricks in the living room. At last, a break!

Do you:

(a) Relax on the couch with an iPad?
(b) Go tidy up the bedrooms?
(c) Gather laundry to toss a quick load in the washing machine?
(d) Start meal prep for the week ahead?

If you answered b, c, or d, odds are good that you’re a woman. But don’t just take the word of two working parents. Survey data tell us so.

In every OECD country, and indeed throughout the world, women do more unpaid housework and childcare than men. Norwegians nearly equally share unpaid work, but women there still do thirty additional minutes of childcare and chores than men every day. In countries like Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Turkey, women do more than three times as much unpaid work as their partners. Recent OECD research finds that Mexican women spend especially long hours on childcare and chores, spending over six hours each day, on average, while men spend fewer than two. Inequality in unpaid care work is even worse in developing countries.

Women do most of the unpaid childcare and housework in the OECD
Proportion and total minutes of unpaid labour per day carried out by men and women, select OECD countries

Source: Chapter 1 in Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017)

This unpaid work burden takes its toll. Women are less likely to engage in the labour force when they put in long hours cooking, cleaning, and caring for kids. When women do work, they’re more likely to work part-time and earn less than their male counterparts. This reflects some women’s preferences to stay home after becoming parents, but it also reflects deep-seated gender norms, stereotypes, and sometimes discrimination on the part of employers, who may anticipate that women are less committed to their jobs.

Less time on housework means more time for paid work

Source: Chapter 4 in Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017).

Young couples may start out sharing laundry duties, but gender gaps in unpaid work widen when men and women become parents. Childbirth represents an important milestone, as it is the time when many couples revert to more “traditional” roles: mothers are more likely to opt out of the workforce or reduce their hours to care for kids, while fathers are more likely to be employed, across OECD countries, than men without children. The gender gap in the employment rate between men and childless women is a relatively small 4.8 percentage points, on average, across the OECD. This gap more than quadruples, to nearly 23 percentage points, when comparing men to women with at least one child under age 14.

An old-fashioned economist might claim, “Ah, but this is a natural and efficient division of labour – women and men specialise in household and market tasks!” This argument may have made sense fifty years ago, when many men’s education and earning potential outpaced women’s, but that is no longer the case. In most OECD countries, young women now have higher levels of education than men. And while the gender wage gap is relatively small in young adulthood, it widens around childbearing age as the so-called “motherhood penalty” takes effect.

Even when women earn more than their spouses, they still do the majority of unpaid housework and care. Theorists point to this as evidence that gender norms outweigh economic efficiency as high-earning women do more housework to conform to gender norms at home, if not in the labour market.

Unpaid work is unbalanced even in couples where the woman earns a higher income
Minutes spent in unpaid work, per day, according to women’s income relative to their partner’s income

Source: Chapter 5 in Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnerships in Families (OECD, 2017).

But there is hope. Policymakers, employers, and families are starting to take action.

Governments increasingly recognise the importance of couples equally sharing childcare and chores. About two-thirds of OECD countries now offer paid paternity leave around childbirth. A growing number of countries reserve (or award “bonus”) days for fathers within parental leave schemes. As a new OECD report details, Germany went even further by introducing the Parental Allowance Plus (ElterngeldPlus) and Partnership Bonus (Partnerschaftsbonus), which provide financial incentives for both parents working part-time and sharing caregiving when children are young. Other countries, including Australia, Portugal, and Slovenia, have run awareness campaigns to promote men’s work-life balance and equal sharing at home.

Workplace policies matter, too. Many employers now offer flexible work options and care-related leave, but workplace cultures often stigmatise fathers who take up such benefits. These measures must be accompanied by employers’ normalisation of men’s leave-taking and by better efforts to evaluate employees based on actual output, rather than “face time” on the job. Hours are a poor proxy for performance and typically disadvantage women.

Of course, policies can only go so far in promoting equality at home if gender stereotypes persist in society. Although fathers’ leave-taking and working part-time are steps in the right direction, they will likely produce only slow changes in unpaid work behaviour.

So how do we keep our daughters from making the dough and sweeping the breadcrumbs?

Perhaps the most important step is to teach your sons to clean and teach your daughters not to. Early gender socialisation, at school and at home, has long-lasting effects. A strong predictor of an adult’s behaviours and expectations is their parents. Across countries, adult children tend to mimic their mothers’ and fathers’ division of paid and unpaid labour.  Children with working mothers expect women to work outside the home, and children with dads who do housework expect that, too. By “dropping the ball” and encouraging their partners to pick up the slack, mothers can relax on the couch safe in the knowledge that they are doing their bit to encourage gender equality in future generations.

Useful Links

OECD Gender Data Portal

Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnership in Families (OECD, 2017)

Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017)