Recognising housework: Is paying the only way?
In January, the Supreme Court directed an insurance company to pay a higher claim amount by taking into account the unpaid work performed by a deceased homemaker. This was a welcome step, but the question is: How do we measure women’s unpaid work? Certainly, monetary value can be associated with the domestic and caregiving roles performed by women.
When women put in the time to provide care or perform domestic chores, it takes them away from paid work, restricts their participation in social and political activities, and reduces their leisure time. Additionally, evidence from community-based organisations from around the world suggests that the burden of managing these responsibilities forces women to either take up low-quality jobs in the informal economy because they are part-time and allow them flexibility, or forces them to engage younger adolescents in such work — in India, various estimates suggest that approximately 94% women work in the informal, unorganised sector. Either way, unpaid work performed by women and girls fundamentally alters their life opportunities.
However, there are at least five challenges to compensating women for their unpaid work. First, how does one accord value to such work? One option is to use an imputed cost approach to capture value, based on market rates provided for such work, as the United Nations Human Development Report did in 1995. But this ignores the emotions that go behind providing such work. How, for instance, can we assign a market wage to the care provided by a mother to her child? There is additional labour that goes into planning, supervising and budgeting for household tasks, which might be missed during such valuations.
Second, while time-use surveys (TUS; measures time spent by individuals in different activities) carried out in India in 1998-99, and then in 2019, have tried to make visible this unpaid productive work, some of these activities are not reported by women themselves as they do not think of it as work (since it is not paid).
Third, there is a continuum between unpaid and paid work that applies to women. The (often) unpaid hours put in as family labour overlap intermittently with other household work — there are no neat divisions. Think of a woman taking care of her child while curing fish which can be sold by her husband in the haat. She would not be able to distinguish between the two when a TUS enumerator asks her.
Fourth, there is a problem with announcing housework as a woman’s job. It runs the risk of stereotyping women as home-workers and men as breadwinners. In a situation where one of the most important policy concerns is the disappearance of women from the labour force, institutionalising such patriarchal constructs may not help.
Data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey indicates that less than a quarter of women in India are available for work or are working, and if the latest Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates are to be believed, more may have dropped off after the pandemic.
Finally, there is the question of who should compensate for unpaid housework. A decade ago, there was a demand in a similar vein asking husbands to pay wages to their wives for the housework that they do. This was rejected by the ministry of women and child development then due to its infeasibility. A simple transfer of money from husband to wife within the household may not work; rather, a more carefully formed State-supported policy announcement may have to be thought of.
So what can be done?
The first step is to think of methods to assign appropriate values to domestic and care work as a way of reclaiming women’s dignity of work. One way to do this is to use time as a valuing measure, and TUS can be used to assign market wages to the number of hours of work put in by women. This can help produce extended labour statistics, account for the millions of missing women in the labour force, help formulate labour market policies especially for women, and help the government account for the non-market household economy. Investments in data systems to enable regular time use surveys will help complement the labour force surveys and make women’s work visible.
A State-supported gender-neutral income transfer at the household level should also be considered. Such an announcement, however, needs to be bereft of stereotyping women into specific roles within the household.
Indian women face an immense burden of care work, and they will not be able to move away from it unless India universalises maternity entitlements and childcare as a public good. While it is a welcome attempt to provide worth to housework, steps to reduce and redistribute such work are perhaps more important than asking for women’s unpaid work to be monetised, even notionally. They are important to ensure women’s rights and a sense of social justice.
Soumya Kapoor Mehta is head and Sona Mitra is principal economist, Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, associated with LEAD at Krea UniversityThe views expressed are personal