Understanding the growing movement for paid housework
There is a growing demand for paid housework, and a call to recognise the economic impact of an often overlooked aspect of day-to-day life.
16.4 billion hours per day are spent performing unpaid care labour, as per data from the International Labour Organisation which is based on two-thirds of the world’s working age population.
This statistic can be understood as 2 billion individuals working 8 hours every day without pay.
In fact, if these services were to be monetised, it would contribute to 9% of the world’s GDP or US $11 trillion (purchasing power parity in 2011).
What is the economic history of housework?
Whilst the economy of unpaid care work has remained largely invisible for hundreds of years, the demand for its recognition has roots in the 19th Century, when the first wave of women’s rights movements took place across the US, Britain, and Europe.
The main issue at the time — which is still prevalent today — was that the burden of housework completely restricted women to the household. There was also a ‘second shift’ problem, whereby working women had to manage both labour inside and outside the household.
In the second wave movement, the focus was not so much on the restrictions or burdens that came with housework, but the fact that it was unpaid and thereby weaponised as a tool of oppression.
As Silvia Federici argues in Wages Against Housework, the unpaid element that is intrinsic to housework is a ‘powerful weapon’ in reinforcing the notion that such work is not ‘actual work’.
This prevents women from protesting against housework on a political or public scale, instead stereotypically only in household kitchens or as part of personal quarrels with a partner. The cultural association of housework becomes emotional and domestic, rather than a wider social issue.
Thred spoke with Dr Roshan Ara, Assistant Professor at the University of Kashmir’s Center for Women’s Studies & Research. She highlights the major arguments that are posed in the movement for wages for housework.
‘This [care work] is the pillar of the economy…if housewives do not work for one day, the whole world will be stagnant…there will be confusion and chaos…Who is preparing this human resource? It is the mother. Therefore, I think this whole economy, wholly and solely, it is being supported by women’, says Dr Ara.
Similarly, a certain section of Marxist feminists view women’s housework as a part of the social reproduction process, whereby housewives essentially enable men to perform their labour.
How do we calculate housework wages?
If we suppose it is universally decided that housewives must be compensated for household work, a crucial hurdle we would have to address is how their wages are to be computed.
The United Nations System of National Accounts in 2008 listed ‘difficulty of making economically meaningful estimates of their values’ as one of the reasons for not including unpaid care work in labour statistics.
To begin with, it is challenging in some cases to distinguish between work and leisure activities. For instance, if we say that a woman is playing with her child, would she be considered to be enjoying or working?
If such child-rearing is considered to be a leisure activity, exploitation is out of question.
However, if this is work, then we can take the number of hours that child-rearing is performed and compare it with the working hours that the husband performs to ensure that the productive and non-productive working hours of both partners are equal and neither is exploited.
Now, if we suppose that childrearing is both a productive and non-productive activity, it would be categorised as work only to the extent that it contributes to the psychological growth of the child.
And since there is no clear standard by which we can separate work from non-work, norms of fairness are tricky to apply when it comes to the separation of work between men and women.
But in such cases, women can be asked to decide for themselves what type of work constitutes leisure and labour. Although, as the “second-shift” concerns in the second wave movement suggest, there may be a possibility that women see household work as largely cumbersome.
Still, such perceptions can shift overtime and the say of women is essential.
Regardless, one formula of calculating wages would be to take into consideration all the household work that can be outsourced to nannies, gardeners, cooks, domestic help, etc. and use it as a maxim to calculate the cost of the work that housewives would do in their place. This is the input evaluation method.
Another solution can be based on the notion that all the work performed by women within the household is aimed towards the betterment of her family members, who are public goods. Hence, these women should be compensated accordingly. This is the output evaluation method, whereby the market value of a task is calculated on the basis of the good that it produces.
Whilst care work has its intricacies in terms of monetisation, there is one aspect of this debate which is imperative to address, and that is the impact it has on the status of women.
Understanding the social impact of unpaid housework
Dr Ara explains, ‘when it comes to monetary power, when it comes to bargaining power- within the household, who has the bargaining power?
The bargaining power is in the hands of the person who has the cash in hand, who has resources in hand. And this “resource-lessness” has degraded women, it has derated their status as they have no bargaining power and no decision-making power.
For example, in any family, whatever bold decision has to be made, usually some men assume that women’s decision do not matter because they are not earning.’
‘I am of the firm opinion that if we cannot [remunerate women], it is not necessary that men have to pay for this. But at least men should get this realisation that whatever they are doing outside the home, it is all because women are giving them their time.
She can also earn, but she is playing such a great role, she is preparing a human resource for the economy, she is feeding the members of the family…we need to value this work.’