When household work is remunerated, it breaks the romanticisation of the work being a woman’s ‘labour of love and care’.

woman turned away from the camera cooking wearing a brown and red sareeImage for representation
news Opinion Monday, March 22, 2021 - 16:07

The recent Malayalam movie, The Great Indian Kitchen, has sparked a discussion around household work, which is disproportionately borne by the women in the family. As a result, some women have raised the issue of the unequal burden of household work that they carry, while others consider it to be their responsibility as women. Household work is seen as an important aspect of economic activity and is inevitable to the well being of individuals and the whole society.

However, recognition and value are not given to household work both in our daily life and also in economic analysis. For instance, household work is not included in major measurements when it comes to the labour force and in calculating Gross Domestic Product. And because of traditional gender roles, which are present, to varying degrees in every human society, it is the women who have to take care of the household work. And, men are regarded as ‘breadwinners’ who have to earn for the family by participating in paid work in the public sphere. However, these traditional gender roles have undergone changes over the years. As a result, many women have entered the workforce, perform paid work and have jobs outside the home. But have men started to engage in household work?

An unequal distribution

As per a report from Oxfam, women in India spend 297 minutes per day on household work while men only spend a mere 31 minutes. It is quite clear from the data that it is women who spend more time doing housework than men. The impact of such an unequal burden of household work in a woman’s life is multidimensional and complex. The unacknowledged and undervalued household work acts as an instrument in perpetuating gender inequality. The majority of women who are engaged in household work might perceive their work as being ‘satisfying’ and as their duty due to the existing gender norms and socialisation. But it takes a big toll on their physical and mental health, not to mention there are other effects such as the increase in financial dependency, increase in the probability of falling into poverty, gender violence and inability to leave abusive partners etc. It is also a major human rights issue as it restricts women, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds, from enjoying basic rights such as the right to education, right to health, right to training and right to paid work in the labour market. The United Nations has recognised this unequal distribution of household work as an infringement of women’s rights and a hurdle in empowering women, thereby leading to failure in economic development.

Now, what would happen if women were provided with wages and a pension for the household work they undertake? Some may argue that a meagre amount of money is not going to make a difference. Others may say that their ‘labour of love and care’ should not be priced. There will also be concerns that such economic payment will act as an incentive in limiting women to the home and reinforce the norm that a woman’s ‘natural place’ is in the household. 

Well, all these are concerns and arguments that have been arising from the time when the claim for wages for housework was made (the International Wages for Housework Campaign began in 1972 in Italy as a feminist movement). Primarily, the wages/pension should not be reduced to a thing or a lump of money. Even though the economic support in terms of the money received might bring some changes in the lives of women, the power of these wages/pension is more than the amount of currency that the women receive in their hands.

The wages/pension for household work should rather be viewed from a political perspective. When household work is remunerated, it breaks the romanticisation of the household work being a ‘labour of love and care’, which is how it has been constructed by both patriarchy and capitalism, so that the women’s labour is free of cost. It is not just the men in the society who are the beneficiaries of the free labour of women but also the capitalist establishment. One can see that the exploitation of women’s labour in the form of household work is one of the basic exploitations under capitalism. By asking for wages and pension for household work, it is the first step towards declaring that no labour is free especially in a capitalist society. It also rejects the notion of housework as an expression of women’s nature. However, the debate around whether such financial incentive limits women within the household is an ongoing one in the feminist discourse.

A welcome step

The benefits incurred out of economic independence is well known and clearly established. Entering into paid work is the primary way through which individuals attain economic independence. Women often do not have the choice to take up paid work due to a number of reasons and finally end up as homemakers. The amount of housework that these women perform is often invisible and not valued. They are forced to depend upon the earning member of the family, often men, for economic support. When there is wages/pension for housework, they are placed on the path of economic empowerment as they attain economic independence. It is an act through which their labour is recognised and valued. The benefits arising out of receiving wages and pension is not just limited to women but trickles down to the children and family.

It is in this context that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala declared a pension for homemakers in their election manifesto. The LDF government is well known for the political stand it has taken in issues concerning women in the state. The development that has been introduced by the LDF government includes the establishment of ‘she lodges’/‘ente koodu’ (a night shelter for women and children in Thiruvananthapuram), Mitra 181 (toll-free national women helpline), among others. Not to mention the increase in the allocation for women in the state Budget, which went up from 11.4% (2017-2018) to 19.54%. 

The promise of pension for homemakers in the election manifesto of the LDF is a reflection of the importance they place in gender sensitive policies. There are issues around how the amount for the pension will be calculated and who exactly will be the beneficiaries, and what will be the mode of transfer etc. But the very fact that the party, which is in power, is recognising the importance of household work is a start to a discussion that has been sidelined by the mainstream for far too long. An obvious and usual argument against the LDF regarding the promise of pension for homemakers is that the party is targeting votes. The above popular argument of electoral politics will be an unfortunate explanation. The socio-economic position of women engaged in housework has been and is a central ideological position. The electoral promise of pension for homemakers is where ideology translates into action. When the pension for homemakers is implemented, there is no doubt that it is going to be the beginning of a revolution.

Meera Suresh Babu is a second-year doctoral scholar in the Department of Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research areas include reproductive rights, motherhood, women's paid work and unpaid work. Currently, she is working on her doctoral thesis which is on labour force participation of mothers in the context of Kerala. 
 
Views expressed are the author’s own.

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