For gender equity, India needs a care manifesto
The political recognition of unpaid domestic labour and wages for housework is globally unprecedented and welcome. But a care infrastructure is needed
What began as an election promise of wages for housework (WFH) by Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) has become an exciting policy initiative adopted by several political parties. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Congress in Assam, and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala have all promised WFH ranging from ₹500 to ₹3,000 to homemakers.
Whether it was driven by political ingenuity or the electoral compulsions of welfare populism, the mainstream recognition by political parties of the disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic and care work (UDCW), performed by anywhere between 160-360 million homemakers, is welcome.
WFH exemplifies the spirit of a 2021 Supreme Court (SC) decision where Justice NV Ramana observed that fixing a notional income for a homemaker “becomes a recognition of the work, labour and sacrifices of homemakers and a reflection of changing attitudes” and is in furtherance of our international law obligations and constitutional vision of social equality and dignity. But we cannot stop with election manifestos promising WFH. We urgently need a care manifesto, one which values UDCW as well as paid care work and places care at the heart of a post-pandemic economic recovery process.
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Consider first the proposals for WFH. Detractors of the MNM’s proposal asked if love could be commodified or how the multitude of UDCW tasks can be measured, evaluated and paid for, or if the husband would become an employer. But parties have addressed these objections by rightly proposing a basic amount by way of an unconditional cash transfer. The DMK and TMC are offering to transfer the cash assistance to women in each household, irrespective of their homemaker status — in effect, a gendered basic income. The LDF is offering a pension. The UDF restricts the payment to homemakers between the ages of 40 and 60 who are not availing its minimum income guarantee scheme.
Across the board, however, parties have offered a paltry amount, possibly bearing in mind the burdens on the exchequer. The replacement value of Indian women’s UDCW is estimated to be $612.8 billion. The SC, in a 2001 case, pegged the notional monthly income of a homemaker at ₹3,000; in 2021, it used the state-specific minimum wage of ₹5,547. Any payment below the minimum wage is prohibited by Article 23 of the Constitution, which outlaws forced labour.
Parties must, therefore, increase this amount, and extend this payment to unmarried daughters who perform UDCW but are viewed as a burden to be married off; (this may delay marriage and push back against the demand for dowry); and to divorced and separated women who perform UDCW in their natal households. And it should be more than a handout for meeting monthly bills. Political messaging must recognise women’s worth as workers and promote their critical consciousness so that they share UDCW with men in their households and dislodge gendered norms around UDCW.
Indian women face compulsory marriage and are reliant on marriage for their economic survival. State-paid WFH will likely enhance a homemaker’s economic bargaining power within marriage, help set time boundaries on UDCW, challenge the ideology of domesticity, even resist domestic violence, help her learn a skill or exit marriage. But WFH, during marriage, is only the beginning. The SC, in assessing compensation for deceased homemakers under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, recommended reforms in family law to protect women’s economic rights upon divorce. This includes a meaningful and enforceable right to maintenance and a community property regime so that women can realise the full value of their contributions through UDCW to the household’s economic assets.
Marriage in India is the hub of social reproduction around which the various spokes of satellite economies of women’s reproductive labour revolve. Millions of women undertake paid work to fit around their unpaid care commitments at home but this is viewed as an extension of UDCW, as “intuitively feminine”, easy work and therefore devalued and underpaid. WFH must be accompanied by wide-ranging reforms so that paid domestic workers, teachers, health workers, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), anganwadi workers, mid-day meal cooks, nurses, sanitation workers and home-based workers are treated as workers and paid a living wage with the full protection of all labour laws. Further, women often resort to sex work and dancing due to failed marriages; their labour must not be criminalised. Surrogates and egg donors should be compensated for their reproductive labour.
A care manifesto would ensure that the census, labour force surveys and time use surveys are restructured to account for the full spectrum of women’s unpaid labour, especially their unpaid economic activity on farms and in household enterprises. It would require the State to invest in building physical infrastructure, which reduces the burdens of UDCW through public services such as water, gas and electricity as well as care infrastructure, through affordable and high-quality creches, nurseries and pre-schools. There must be universal access to food, health care and maternity benefits. Investment in the care infrastructure, including through an urban-rural employment guarantee scheme, can create new jobs which generate longer-lasting economic benefits through direct, indirect and induced employment when compared to investment in construction.
Women’s UDCW has long subsidised the State, capital and patriarchy. Political recognition of the value of UDCW through unconditional cash transfers is a globally unprecedented move in the right direction. A care manifesto will, however, help us move beyond tokenistic payments to homemakers to building an economy with a care infrastructure that allows women to combine paid and unpaid work on their own terms, with dignity and respect.
Prabha Kotiswaran is at King’s College London. She has drawn on contributions of several feminists at a recent symposium on Wages for Housework
The views expressed are personal