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Reproductive work

Bottles of baby milk and bags of frozen baby milk on a table

Feminist economists have long called for the inclusion of unpaid domestic work, including caring duties and breastfeeding, to be included in national accounting towards GDP. Reproductive work includes the labour of bearing children and raising them, as well as other caring duties, healthcare, and education. The Office for National Statistics in the UK, include estimates for unpaid domestic work, calculating satellite accounts to the national accounts. However, such valuations are partial and systematically undervalue the work of reproduction.

Commercial interests operating in infant nutrition (human milk products) and reproductive technologies in global fertility chains have profited in reproductive industries. The companies involved treat substances provided by women (such as eggs, wombs, milk) as ‘inputs’ and pay the primary suppliers very little. Profit has only been achievable owing to subjectification, oppression, and devaluation of women’s work as well as global inequalities.

This is Essential Work

‘This is essential work: towards a holistic valuation of breastfeeding in society’ is an Open Societal Challenges project at The Open University that seeks to achieve a true and fair recognition of the value of breastfeeding as a form of reproductive work in society. The initial project, which was developed in conjunction with Michal Nahman, Associate Professor, University of the West of England, recognises that most reproductive work is conducted by women and often low paid migrant workers, and that a valuation of reproductive labour that accurately reflects its contribution to economy and society will have a positive impact on gender, race, and class inequalities nationally and globally.

This project will illuminate the limits of economic valuations of reproductive work and inform regulation of reproductive industries. The phenomenon of for-profit milk banking, commercial human milk suppliers, and the informal selling of human milk via online platforms are all relatively new and remain under-researched. Social research on milk sharing has focused on maternal and infant health outcomes with little attention on the conditions under which milk is provided. Feminist economics approaches have sought to value labour in breastfeeding in a way that would facilitate their entry into national accounts. This approach abstracts from complex, interconnected and historical institutions that structure, maintain and reproduce multiple oppressions in. 

It will also look at alternative approaches to the provisioning of reproductive work in society by centring gender and racial equality, whilst taking a historical and interdisciplinary approach to how labour is valued in reproductive industries. Furthermore, current policy focus in the human milk powder area is on the impact of these companies on consumer safety. This project will explore the conditions under which women sell milk to these companies and will centre milk providers’ voices by using participatory research methods. In our impact work, we will work closely with organisations such as the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India to connect the ways in which women are exploited both as providers and users of human milk products.

In 2022 the project team worked with artist Yuko Edwards to curate an international online art exhibition, delving into how reproductive work can be interrogated and communicated visually. Twenty artists from different social classes, career stages and geographies in the Global South and North were selected from 700 entries. Speaking of the exhibition Professor Susan Newman said, “The exhibition has built a network of visual artists and activists and facilitated further dialogue and knowledge exchange around the topic. As part of the Open Societal Challenge programme, we will develop the exhibition and integrate it with the detailed ethnographic participatory research that we plan to conduct, promoting diverse modes of expression and communication for knowledge exchange; including facilitating knowledge exchange between policy makers and our work.”