The wife owes service and labour to her husband as much and as absolutely as the slave does to his master.
The forthcoming State Assembly election in Tamil Nadu, one of the contesting party has made an eye-catching election promise that is evidently targeted at a large constituency of voters women who are full-time homemakers.
The party has promised to recognise housework as a salaried profession by paying homemakers ‘hitherto unrecognized and unmonetized’ for their work at home.
A report published by the International Labour Organization in 2018 shows that, globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, this figure rises to 80%.
A recent political entrant in the electoral fray, the contesting party’s promise to directly pay women a monthly amount may be viewed as a strategy to grab attention in an over-crowded, highly competitive electoral landscape.
We go a step ahead and glorify our women as goddesses but deny them equal rights, and under the latest Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh Ordinances, even the right to choose their spouses.
The dignity of domestic labour:
- Housework is still unpaid, but the influx of women into the workforce, in large part enabled by the invention of domestic appliances, has partially freed women from economic dependence on their husbands.
- And it has been a boon for a particular category of person: the intelligent and ambitious woman who longed to be free of domestic servitude, and was newly able to hire professionals to step into her fluffy slippers while she went out to work.
- After all, the work still needs to be done by someone. Despite vacuum cleaners and washing machines, the average household still requires many hours of cooking and cleaning per week to keep the show on the road, even aside from the far more time-consuming task of childcare.
- The work required to keep house may have plummeted within the last hundred years, but it is still substantial.
- Now, as ever, the people doing that work are disproportionately female, and they are as essential to society as they ever were.
- With no one to do all this domestic work, we would very soon become a smelly, sick and hungry nation.
- And housework has more emotional significance than a cold economic analysis would suggest.
The burden on women:
- As in the 2011 Census, while 159.85 million women stated household work as their main occupation, a mere 5.79 men referred to it as their main occupation.
- Justice N.V. Ramana in his crisp and authoritative concurring judgment of January 5, 2021 in Kirti and Another v. Oriental Insurance Company has referred to the Time Use in India-2019 Report of the National Statistical Office, Government of India (published in September 2020) which says that on an average, while Indian women spend 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services for household members, men spend just 97 minutes.
- Women also spend 134 minutes in a day on unpaid caregiving services for household members.
- A French government’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress in 2009 that studied the situation in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Finland and the U.S. drew similar conclusions.
- A report entitled ‘Women’s Economic Contribution through their Unpaid Work: A Case Study of India’ (2009) had estimated the economic value of services by women to be to the tune of a whopping $612.8 billion annually.
- Justice Ramana not only listed the various activities women undertake but also referred to British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou who had lamented that the household work by wives is not taken into consideration in calculating national income.
Other judicial observations:
In Arun Kumar Agrawal v. National Insurance Company (2010), the Supreme Court not only acknowledged the contribution of the housewives as invaluable but also observed that it cannot be computed in terms of money.
Her gratuitous services rendered with true love and affection cannot be equated with services rendered by others. Similar observations were recently made in Rajendra Singh (2020).
But then these cases dealt with a limited question of compensation under the Motor Vehicles Act to calculate the compensation for the death of homemakers, and not the recognition of a wife’s right in her husband’s income during the subsistence of marriage.
Justice A.K. Ganguly in Arun Kumar Agrawal (2010) referred to Census 2001 that is carried out under an Act of Parliament and had categorised those who perform household duties i.e. about 36 crore women in India as non-workers and clubbed them together with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners (who are not engaged in economically unproductive work).
What the gender disparity in work participation figures?
- ILO defines unpaid work as non-remunerated work carried out to sustain the well-being and maintenance of other individuals in a household or the community, and it includes both direct and indirect care.
- Women in India spend more than nine times the time spent by men on unpaid care work.
- In actual terms, this is what the gender disparity looks like – 297 minutes of women’s time a day compared with 31 minutes of men’s time a day.
- The gap is wider in urban India according to Oxfam’s “Time is Up” report of 2020 based on surveys conducted on 1,047 individuals.
- According to the time use data from the most recent round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2020, women spend 238 minutes (four hours) more on unpaid work each day than men in India.
- Drawing from this data, economists Jayati Ghosh and CP Chandrashekhar point to the wide diversity between work participation figures of men (nearly 70 per cent) and women (just over 20 per cent) in the 15-59 age group.
- According to them as high as 94 per cent of women in the age group surveyed were forced to engage in unpaid labour, while the number was just 20 per cent for men.
Countless arguments are made against wages for housework. That it would ghettoise women and further confine them to the home.
Well, the converse is also possible. She may gain a new confidence and train herself to become financially independent.
Needless to say, women constitute almost half the population and their needs and issues have to be addressed.
A homemaker doesn’t need any favours. She is already contributing to the economy. A salary for her work at home would be a tool towards her empowerment, give her a life of dignity.
As International Labour Day is being celebrated, we need to make sure that her labour and the love that she put into it, is not being ignored.
The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, in 1991, had recommended measurement and quantification of unremunerated domestic activities of women and their recognition in GDP so that the de facto economic contribution of women is highlighted.
Keeping in mind the basic principle of providing visibility for unpaid work, and challenging patriarchy, policymakers can follow the ideals of visionaries like Kanshiram and Periyar who wanted women to free themselves from domestic chores so that they contribute in social and political responsibilities in the public domain.
Gender-neutral solutions such as institutionalising women’s right to property and co-ownership of any assets purchased by a couple could also go a long way in recognising the value of unpaid work and gender-equal family structures.
And last, but not the least, laws such as this must go hand in hand with universal basics such as labour rights, assured fair living wages for all work, including for domestic work, grievance redressal systems in place, protection from violations of human rights.