Unarguably lockdowns, social distancing, quarantine and work-from-home paradigms in the aftermath of coronavirus have magnified the deeply entrenched gendered inequalities that persist like a virus in our society. Coronavirus initiated a public health crisis, foregrounded the necessity and the complexities of providing care work. Not only the majority of the frontline health workers are women, risking their lives daily to serve others, but most significantly, the unaccounted, unvalued and often unrecognised care work of children and elderlies; household chores including perpetual cooking, cleaning, washing predominantly preoccupy the lives and thoughts of majority of women, is classified as ‘unproductive’ labour. The very term ‘housewife’ connotes a woman who doesn’t work outside (capitalist marketplace), rendering her 24/7 domestic work invisible. Also paradoxically, any working woman in a heterosexual family is unconsciously compelled to perform the ‘second shift’ of housework inadvertently making them all a housewife.
Domestic Work is a Masked Form of Productive Labour
Housework is a complex, undefined and unrecognised category of work which is not just limited to house chores. It is a reproduction of social labour. The Wages for Housework as part of International Feminist Collective (IFC) in 1977 described housework as “servicing the wage earner physically, emotionally, sexually getting ready to work day after day for the wages… This means that behind every factory, behind every school, every office or mine is the hidden work of millions of women who have consumed their life, their labour power, in producing labour power that works in that factory, school, office or mine”.
Recent demand for the wages against domestic work as the election manifesto by actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan’s political party, Makkal Needhi Maiam in Tamil Nadu has rekindled an old debate and a long overdue especially in the times of pandemic, when many women are struggling to meet the growing demands of the family in the absence of domestic help and increased care work with respect to children and elders. The idea of monetising domestic work does seem to qualify the household chores as productive labour. It stands to demystify the belief that housework is not real work.
However, in a society where women are made to work out of love and religious duty towards the family, demanding wages for the work is not only unfathomable but also deeply disrespectful to many who take pride in being the queen of the kitchen. Case in point would be actress Kangana Ranaut’s recent tweet opposing the demand for wages in a warped patriarchal logic . “Don’t put a price tag on sex we have with our love, don’t pay us for mothering our own, we don’t need salary for being the Queens of our own little kingdom our home, stop seeing everything as business. Surrender to your woman she needs all of you not just your love/respect/salary,”; she further adds “it’s like you want to pay God for this creation.”
Unfortunately, Kangana reinforces the mystification of the household work as divine and sacred duty for women and by using a collective pronoun, she universalises domestic work as not only natural and desirable but what Federici would call it “an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.”
Kangana’s flawed rhetoric of “don’t put a price tag” is the real question here—the apparent pricelessness of women is ludicrous when most women in Indian families have no control or say in the family finances. As Kangana’s self deification works in divesting female agency in maintaining the skewed gender status quo, the long sustained demand of the campaign for the wages as part of the International Feminist Collective runs the risk of turning into political Twitter one upmanship.
‘Ain’t my trash anymore!‘
Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own painstakingly shows the plight of Shakespeare’s fictitious sister called Judith Shakespeare. Judith, presumably as talented as Shakespeare, ends in utter misery. Spurned by the society due to her unwanted pregnancy and suffocated with the mundane menial domestic duties, she ends her life. The tragic plight of an imagined character who was potentially as creative as Shakespeare but unable to follow her passion of writing, argues for financial freedom as a prerequisite for intellectual freedom. A woman who is obliged to take care of the entire house fails to call a room her own.
As Woolf asserts “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The ‘room’ denotes physical and psychological space and freedom to pursue interest and passion outside the daily drudgery of domestic work. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex examine gender as a social, economic and cultural construct framing housework as a necessary condition to conform to the patriarchal norms of femininity.
According to the latest data, India has the second lowest female labour participation rate in South Asia. Despite a significant rise in the education attainment among women, the LFPR (Labour Force Participation Rate) in females has steadily declined especially in the case of married women, who instead of joining the labour force equipped with the necessary qualifications, still choose to remain at home subsumed under marital household obligations and incessant child care work.
Feminist economist like Marilyn Waring rightly addresses this lacunae by calling out the sexist policies and methodology of calculating the national income (drafted by men) which excludes the non-market activities (child care and house work) that are disproportionately undertaken by women in her groundbreaking book If Women Counted. According to Oxfam and Institute for Women’s policy research, the unpaid care work is estimated to be around $11 trillion an year.
This most certainly calls for the re-evaluation of productive vs. unproductive labour in assessing the national income of the country. According to the Oxfam India report ‘It is not your job’, unpaid care work by women accounts for 35% of India’s GDP. Engendering macroeconomic theories and tools of measurement is essential in calculating the national income for social justice.
Why Wages for Housework may not be the Way Forward?
Electorally appealing, wages for housework may not be an essential road map towards equality. While wages for housework emerged as a strong campaign through International Feminist Collective of the 70’s and was instrumental in crediting the productive value of the housework, it could not ride the current of the time. Not surprisingly, the idea of wages was not subscribed by the women’s liberation movement.
The second wave of feminism instead focused on women’s participation in the labour market, better working conditions and the creation of community social services like day care centers to enable women to move out of their houses. There was a growing concern that the demand for the housework wages could be counter productive as it may force women to go back to their houses and resume their traditional roles of being homemakers.
It can potentially disrupt the notion of household work as a shared responsibility. There has been a steady cut in the government public spending on health and care facilities increasing the burden on women as primary caregivers. The wages for housework can also transfer the state’s responsibility of community services to the ill waged wives which can in effect be detrimental to the women’s emancipation. And how it may impact the marital relationship in an Indian family system where women are expected to fulfill the needs of the family as part of her religious duties (as a wife) remains to be seen, it can be easily vilified as commodification of love.
Another problem is how to account and what value to put on the domestic work? Being an unskilled category, housework would always be devalued as it does not ostensibly create surplus wealth in the capitalist economy. Furthermore, what would be the terms of the salary and how would a working woman be placed in wage entitlement? Amidst these confounding questions, the idea of Universal Basic Income and direct transfer to women of low income groups is more feasible.
Also, most important is to re-assess the paid domestic work which is largely an informal sector, most exploited and underpaid. This alone can restore the dignity of housework as a valued and indispensable form of labour for the market economy.
- Toupin, Louise. Wages for Housework. Pluto Press, 2018.
- Ann Oakley
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics.
- Business Standard
- Oxfam America
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India