Wages for Household Work: Women Empowerment or Manifesto Kitsch?
Updated: Mar 1
Image Credits: ‘Ms.’ Magazine, Spring 1972 Edition
“It is definitely possible.” Unveiling his party Makkal Needhi Maiam’s (MNM) seven-point Governance and Economic Agenda’, the actor turned politician Kamal Hassan assured rightful payment to homemakers if his party was voted to power in Tamil Nadu. “Homemakers will get their due recognition through payment for their work at home which hitherto has been unrecognised and unmonetised, thus raising the dignity of our womenfolk.”, the agenda read. Hassan boosted his argument by emphasizing the provision of opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship for women. Many viewed it as an assault on traditional family values and a move of pseudo-feminism for trivial political benefits, thereby sparking a nationwide debate.
History of the Wages for Housework Movement
The concept of wages for housework has a long history. The demand was first raised at the third National Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester, England. Selma James, an American pioneer of feminism and a social activist, co-founded the ‘International Wages for Housework Campaign’ in Italy in 1972. Her esoteric argument was based on the conjecture that household work was the basis of industrial work and, thus, should be paid for. Silvia Federici, among the other founders, in her book titled ‘Wages for Housework’ reiterated James’ ideas- “To ask wages for housework will by itself undermine the expectations the society has of us” which are “the essence of our socialization”.
In the Indian context, the leadoff endeavour to seek economic recognition for the quotidian chores done by women was illustrated in a report titled ‘Women’s Role in Planned Economy’ in 1940, by a subcommittee of the National Planning Committee (NPC). The subcommittee was spearheaded by Rani Lakshmibai Rajwade, an Indian independence activist and a stalwart feminist, and its member secretary, Mridula Sarabhai. The report pertinaciously challenged the conventional Indian notion of male ‘bread-winner’ arguing for the equal economic status of household work of women for fixing the ‘standard of life’ and creating a benefic ‘cultural environment’. Despite supremely commendable attempts made by the female independence activists, the issue lost political leitmotif and remained underwhelmed for a long time. In 2012, Krishna Tirath, the then Minister of Women and Child Care Development announced the consideration for the same by the government, with husbands paying for the household work. The rudimentary approach though offered to foment women’s status, it conversely tended to increase the dependence of wives on their husbands. The idea was never materialised.
Statistics of Unpaid Labour Contributed by Women
When the manifesto of MNM was announced, it was welcomed by most of the feminists and social activists, including many homemakers. It highlighted the wide gap in the unpaid work done by male and female members, that has heretofore remained insouciant. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines unpaid work as “non-remunerated work carried out to sustain the well-being and maintenance of other individuals in a household or community”. According to a ‘Time Use Survey’ (2019) by the Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, men spend 80 per cent of their working hours on paid work while women spend nearly 84 per cent of their working hours on unpaid work. Female participation in unpaid labour (243 minutes per day) is 10 times more than that of an average man (25 minutes per day). This is certainly higher than the global average of 76.2 per cent of total hours of unpaid care work which is more than three times as much as men (ILO Report 2018). The paid female workforce has also been severely hit by lockdown and a looming recession, with four out of every ten women losing their job, and 30 per cent increment in time spent on fulfilment of family responsibilities. Although the capitalist economy has looked for solutions in the ‘work from home’ model recently, it has been a part of women’s unpaid domestic services for a long time.
Despite its immense potential, female labour goes unaccounted for. In India, women’s unpaid domestic work is estimated to be 40 per cent of its current GDP as compared to the global 13 per cent according to the IMF. Oxfam's Time to Care’ report suggests that unpaid work accounts for trillions of rupees every year. Therefore, the exclusion of women’s work has aggravated the disparity in the gendered division of paid and unpaid labour.
Arguments in Support of the Proposition
Globally, patriarchy has been the norm of society since times immemorial. Its traces are still conspicuous. In India, advertisements, television serials, films, government policies and neighbourhood gossip mills- all celebrate ‘good’ housewives, thereby concretizing gendered notions of labour. The woman of the family cooks, cleans, takes unconditional care of children and elders round the clock. The creator of dreams of the family ashes her aspirations in the fire of the hearth. Kamal Hassan, drawing inspiration from his mother, proposed the idea of paid housework.
In response, Shashi Tharoor expressed his acquiescence and tweeted “This will recognise and monetise the services of women homemakers in society, enhance their power and autonomy and create near-universal basic income”. As already mentioned, the huge unpaid work of women, if recognised and monetised, would lead to a splendiferous bump in the economy. Sweden, for instance, regarded as the champion of gender equality and work-life balance, introduced subsidies to household work in 2007. Last year, the Swedish National Audit Office revealed that in families using subsidies, both men and women reported more hours of earned income. MNM has also politicised otherwise invisible housework and furthered the discourse that women shoulder a disproportionate burden of it. It, therefore, aims to take into account the income poverty of women and provide efficacious solutions. The problem also limns the patriarchal roles in a family- men are unwilling and often find it inferior to contribute to unpaid domestic work. To bring about a change in this flawed perception and to recognise housework by estimating its monetary value and paying women is a huge step forward. It would enhance the financial freedom and dignity of women.
Failing Aspects of the Proposal
“We don’t need salary for being the Queens of our own little kingdom, stop seeing everything as a business”. Kangana Ranaut’s tweet opposing the move of wages for housework further read “she needs the all of you not just your love/respect/salary”. This looks hypocritical, and rather utopian, in a male dominant society where ‘Queens’ are subjected to domestic violence and economic dependence on their husbands. However, there is a modicum of truth. It is crucial to provide recognition to female work, but creating value cannot be restricted merely to remuneration.
Feminist and economist, Diane Elson laid a systematic approach before the policymakers to fill the huge gap in unpaid domestic and care work in the form of the three Rs- Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution. While the party promise addresses the first aspect to some extent, it miserably fails the remaining goals. In Tamil Nadu, 90 per cent of females and 24 per cent of males in the age group 1-59 participate in unpaid housework. Instead of reducing this rift, the electoral promise conversely cements the gendered role of women in the household- a food for patriarchy and a critical lacuna in the proposal. Payment of wages may turn out to be a formal endorsement of the belief that housework is the domain of women. Besides, it also provides an impetus to the unwarranted male mentality that they can merely help and not participate in unpaid care work because women’s work hours are now being compensated for. This contradicts the idea of domestic work as a shared responsibility. Furthermore, the manifesto promise seems to reinforce gender stereotypes by disincentivizing women from working in the paid sector. Accepting wages for housework would appear more tempting as women can earn money and simultaneously fulfil their ‘expectations’ as wives and daughters-in-law by carrying out domestic work. Moreover, it is difficult to quantify the amount of work and time women put in household duties provided the mental and emotional strain they undergo. Another aspect is that many women also associate dignity and ‘swabhiman’ in the care work they do. Therefore, its monetisation may be seen as a threat to their self-respect. Upon being questioned about the economic feasibility of the proposition, Kamal Hassan replied that it can be materialised if corruption is eliminated and prosperity is ensured. So even those awaiting benefits may have to face disappointment, given the humongous challenges.
Evidently, the limitations of the proposal outweigh its advantages. The manifesto should give primacy to enhancing opportunities for education and employment of women to make them financially strong and independent. Recognising household work equal to any other work, measuring and placing an economic value to it in the national accounts and statistics is sufficient. Remuneration of the housework, as discussed, is an exploitative option for women as it bars them from realising their full potential. The case of Sweden may appear to be alluring but it is necessary to consider its high HDI which served as the base to the compensation provided for women. Moreover, Sweden has one of the highest female labour force participation rates globally (70 per cent in 2016). So, before introducing such policy reforms it is necessary to build the foundation. Alternatively, families should be urged to divide the total value income equally between the male and female members to ensure economic freedom and recognise the labour of the latter. This needs to be supplemented by incentivising men to participate more in household work to reduce the burden borne by women and redistribute responsibilities.
Therefore, the proposition may partly serve in the actualisation of ‘practical’ gender needs by providing wages, but it languishes in addressing the ‘strategic’ aspect of women empowerment. It would be deceptive to label it as manifesto kitsch because it politicises the invisibilised unpaid work by women. But, as far as the efficacy of the plan is considered, it turns out to be hastily designed and is liable to culminate in undesirable, and even contradictory consequences.
By Vibhuti Pathak
Vibhuti is a student of History at the Hindu College. He is an enthusiastic learner, amateur writer, and diehard fan of the Joey-Chandler duo from the sitcom ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S.’. He loves to venture deep into vague topics about polity, society and history.