Author: Neha Chauhan (Commentary)
Editor(s): Riya Singh Rathore and Ritwiz Sarma
Introduction: The Invisible Work of Women in India
Due to the traditional division of labour, women and girls majorly perform unpaid household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and care work. According to the recent National Statistical Office (2020) report on time use in India, women spend close to 5 hours (299 minutes) per day on “unpaid domestic services for household members”. On the other hand, men spend around 1.5 hours (97 minutes) on the same. The time distribution on “unpaid caregiving services for household members” also highlighted the disproportionate burden of unpaid work and emotional labour on women. Women spend 134 minutes on unpaid care services, while men spend only 76 minutes per day.
The unpaid work performed by women forms the bedrock of our society and plays an indispensable role in supporting individual and societal well-being (International Labour Organization, n.d.). Despite this, women’s unpaid work in the household continues to be unrecognised in the country’s national accounts. As a result, there is a severe underestimation and a typically narrow view of women’s work. This can lead to misplaced policy priorities, which can do more harm than good. For instance, a policy of increasing the number of paid jobs explicitly for women might lead to women being doubly burdened with the responsibility of carrying out their domestic responsibilities in addition to the paid work (Ghosh, 2009).
In recent times, several political leaders have highlighted the need for remuneration for women’s unpaid domestic and care work. Makkal Needhi Maiam, a regional political party in India, promised wages for the housework done by the homemakers in its manifesto for the 2021 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election (Makkal Needhi Maiam, 2020). In the run-up to the 2021 Assam Legislative Assembly election, the Indian National Congress promised to provide ₹2000 per month to every housewife through the ‘Grihini Saman’ scheme (Indian National Congress, 2021). These announcements have brought the discussions on the effectiveness of the policy of wages for housework to the forefront.
While the national statistics continue to view the women engaged in unpaid household work as non-workers, it has been estimated that the total value of unpaid and domestic work is approximately between 10% and 39% of Gross Domestic Product (United Nations Secretary General, 2016). It is argued that such a policy would increase the recognition of women’s work every day. Recently, the Supreme Court of India noted that providing wages for unpaid domestic work is a step towards overcoming the notion that a homemaker does not add economic value to the household (Kirti & Anr. Etc. vs Oriental Insurance Company Limited, 2021). Once women’s invisible work is recognised, it can also be used to argue for a more equitable redistribution of this work within the household (Samuel, 2019).
While the policy seems well-intentioned, several gaps remain that can reverse the potential benefits that it hopes to achieve.
Wages for Housework: Gaps and Limitations
One of the significant challenges with a policy that seeks to provide cash incentives to women for housework is that it reinforces the existing gender roles. As discussed, the onus of the unpaid domestic and care work already falls disproportionately on women and girls. A scheme that rewards women for this work runs the risk of further institutionalising women’s role as caregivers and men’s as breadwinners.
In India, women’s participation in paid work remains low despite the economic growth witnessed in recent decades. According to the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) estimates, only 28.7% of women aged 15 and above were part of the workforce as compared to 73% of men in the same age bracket (National Statistical Office, 2021). As per the NSS 68th Round (National Sample Survey Office, 2014), most women who spent most of their time on domestic duties cited “no other member to carry out the domestic duties” as the most common reason for doing so. This was true for rural and urban areas across all age groups (ibid.). The burden of unpaid work at home keeps most women away from accessing the job opportunities that are available. The policy of wages for housework does not make any provision for the unpaid work at home to be redistributed and shared equally between men and women. Consequently, this policy may incentivise the gendered division of labour and feed into the norms that confine women within the households.
A recent study by Chaudhary (2021) found that as household income increases, women withdraw from the labour force. Another study (Abraham, 2020, Chapter 3) found that as the level of household monthly per capita consumption expenditure, a proxy variable for income, increases, women tend to withdraw from the labour force and engage in domestic activities. This was true for both urban and rural areas. In a patriarchal society, women’s paid work is considered to be of a lower social status. Therefore, with a rise in household income, women substitute paid work outside the homestead with status-production activities such as taking care of children, the elderly, and religious activities (Papanek, 1979). Therefore, lack of financial resources and non-availability of domestic help are not the only reasons women engage in unpaid work at home. While a policy that pays for housework might increase the visibility of women’s work, it is unlikely to empower them to choose what kind of work they want to engage in. A simplistic policy like this one ignores the various social and cultural norms which shape women’s work and role inside and outside the home.
Additionally, cash transfer schemes cannot be considered a silver bullet for addressing the problem of the disproportionate distribution of unpaid work. The success of most of the cash transfer schemes has been in cases where the schemes have been accompanied by extensive public provisioning of services (Narayanan, 2011). Therefore, a policy like wages for housework cannot be used to replace the investment in public services needed to reduce the burden of unpaid work on women.
Furthermore, there is no mechanism to ascertain how these wages would be utilised. While the cash transfers might be made to women, it does not necessarily mean that women would have the capacity to exercise agency over household spending decisions. According to a World Bank (2012) report, in many countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, many women are not involved in household decisions regarding how their own personal earned income is spent. The pattern of husbands having control over their wives’ earnings is even stronger among lower-income households (ibid.).
Finally, there remains doubt on how the wages that would be paid to the homemakers would be calculated. For instance, the kind of unpaid domestic work that women in urban India perform is different from their rural counterparts. The nature of unpaid domestic work also changes with a change in the size and income level of the household.
While several gaps remain in the policy of wages for housework, it is interesting to note that the invisible work of women is becoming a pertinent issue to be discussed by the politicians and policymakers. It is now widely recognised that the disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic work acts as a barrier to women’s economic empowerment. Given this context, the provision of remuneration to homemakers is touted as one of the ways in which this work can be recognised and act as a tool for financial empowerment. However, as discussed in this paper, several socio-economic factors need to be considered before such a policy is implemented.
While such a policy might provide women with otherwise no access to paid work with some form of social security, it is essential to ensure that the policy does not entrench the existing gender roles. Given the restrictions on women’s mobility outside the homestead, wages for housework might end up justifying keeping women away from paid opportunities. Therefore, such a scheme cannot be implemented as a substitute for the public investment needed to redistribute the burden of unpaid domestic and care work.
For instance, accessible crèches would reduce the time and energy women have to spend on childcare. Similarly, government schemes to ensure the availability of drinking water and cooking gas would reduce women’s time to collect water and firewood. These policies would ensure that women’s burden is actually reduced. Additionally, steps to ensure women’s right to property and assets can help provide them with financial security. Such a step can be used to ensure women’s contribution to the household is recognised.
Despite the shortcomings, the promise of wages for housework has opened up a much-needed dialogue on women’s unrecognised and devalued work. It has also brought the gender-unequal family structures to the forefront.
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