We say: stop celebrating our exploitation, our supposed heroism. From now on, we want money for each moment of it so that we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it. -Silvia Federici “Wages against Housework”, 1974
The ‘Grihini Samman’ scheme was an electoral promise by the Indian National Congress before the Assam Legislative assembly elections. This scheme provides ₹2000/- per month to every housewife, including widowed and divorced women. The ‘Wages for housework’ policy addresses the unequal division of unpaid care work amongst men and women, which hinders the quantity and quality of women’s participation in the labour force. Recognition through remuneration goes a long way in combating the patriarchal notion that housework is a ‘labour of love’. However, this policy might counterintuitively further solidify gender roles and increase the dependence on women eventually.
Time spent doing routine housework and care work is defined as Unpaid labour (OECD, 2019). Due to gendered social norms, unpaid care work falls disproportionately on women across different socio-economic classes and cultures. In the NSO 2020 report on time use in India, women spend five hours per day on unpaid domestic services, while men spend only 1.5 hours. Unequal distribution of caring responsibilities also translates into unequal opportunities for time to participate in paid activities. This affects female labour force participation, quality of employment, and wages. Neglecting unpaid care work leads to incorrect inferences about levels and changes in individuals’ well-being and the value of time, limiting policy effectiveness across a range of socio-economic areas.
Despite the importance of women’s contribution to care work, it is severely underestimated and excluded from accounting in most countries. This leads to a narrow view of women’s work represented by the predominant notion of housework being their sole responsibility. Women’s work (caring for children and older adults, emotional labour, cooking, and cleaning), however, is valued at $10.9 trillion globally. Recognising this work in the economic system and adding it to the labour supply equation improves the labour force analysis. Domestic worker organiser Ai-Jen Poo noted that isolation, irregular hours, and exclusion from labour laws that women face in households coincide with those of domestic paid workers. But no legal recognition of domestic work as ‘work’ invalidates calls for more fair distribution.
An unintended consequence of this policy, however, is that provision of cash incentives to women and girls for unpaid care work further institutionalises the unequal division of work and reinforces the existing gender roles. While wages for care work will transform what was understood as a ‘natural attribute’ of women into a social contract, it need not change the division of housework. It would not enhance their independence in the long run and may discourage labour market participation and investment in education, further maintaining the traditional division of work. A policy giving cash incentives without social messaging and structural change would entrench the roles prescribed to women.
This policy might also fail to change the valuation of unpaid work from chores performed ex gratia to a valuable economic activity. This reflects in how we treat domestic workers. Despite being paid, their work and stature are considered inferior, especially in case-segregated countries like India.
While a policy that visibilises unpaid work may help improve women’s conditions, it is unlikely to give them the autonomy to decide the work they want to do. This policy, therefore, ignores the multitudes of norms and social patterns that impact the labour supply equation for women.
Another question is setting the wage payable to women. A blanket wage is unlikely to account for the vast differences in women’s work and the divisions across socio-economic classes. It tends to undervalue the value beneficiaries obtain from the labour performed. Undervaluation of wages could also result in overconsuming labour beyond the optimal level. Supplemented by rigidities imposed by social norms, women will be all the more chained to housework. This would keep women out of better-paying market opportunities and reduce the scope for emancipation.
The wages for housework policy is a short-term solution to visibility for women’s work and a recognition of the gendered roles of work division in society. However, equal division of burden and an equitable representation of women in the workforce requires a socio-economic overhaul considering the cultural norms that pervade work relations. Improved access to public services is an essential institutional change to facilitate the reduction and redistribution of unpaid work. These include child care and care for older adults, investment in time-saving technology, electrification and improved access to water, and equal provision of maternity and paternity leaves.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.