Solution for socialproblem?

Wages for Housework


(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

General Election is the time for worst hate speeches against opponents and lavish promises for voters. Among the latter, Kamal Haasan’s promise of wages for presently unpaid housework for women has national significance and without fail has raised a debate on its implications and possibilities. As a new face in politics, he has to generate fresh promises and has picked one that he perhaps thinks will attract 50% of voters.

Details about its implementation, criteria for fixing wages and working conditions, and about employer and mode of payment, etc., are not provided. What is sure to emerge is a group of supporters and another of opponents for this radical idea that will reorganise family relations on partly economic terms.

There are different categories of work and workers in running domestic life and household activities. “Housemaker” and “houseworker” have distinct meaning. Already in existence are “housewife” and “domestic worker” with distinct connotation. The responsibilities of housewife or homemakers are virtually unlimited and bound to no time frame.

Homemaking is a term first used in the US and Canada for management of a home – otherwise known as housework, housekeeping or household management. A housewife or househusband and also a social worker who manages a household during incapacity of a housewife or househusband is a homemaker in the US. November 3 is the National Homemaker Day in the USA. It is observed to appreciate and celebrate the work done in homes by those who keep the homes running.

A “homemaker” may be a man or woman. There is no commitment to be a lifelong homemaker. He/she is the person who maintains the upkeep of his or her residence, especially one who is not employed outside the home, while homeworker is a person who works from home for remuneration to produce a product or do a service.

According to 2011 census, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children and parents and other activities performed to make the household functions are the main occupation of 160 million women in India. Women indeed have to be jack of all trades, not just cooks and cleaners. They have to be teachers and doctors and shoulder multifarious responsibilities as daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters, lovers, wives, mothers, mothers-in-law, grand-mothers, and so on.

The ILO defines unpaid work as non-remunerated work carried out to sustain the well-being and maintenance of other individuals in a household or community and includes both direct and indirect care. It found that women in India spent more than 9 times the time spent by men on unpaid care work. A global estimate put the total time spent by women in unpaid work as four and half hours, which was twice the time spent by men.

All over the world, unpaid working hours of women range from 345 minutes per day in Iraq to 168 minutes per day in Taiwan according to a calculation of the ILO. Unpaid care work economy is valued by the ILO at nearly 9% of global GDP with three-fourths of domestic work performed by women. Traditional GDP accounting measures ignore unpaid work.

“Women will break through established glass ceilings by the equal opportunities provided to them”, says Kamal’s party manifesto. Pointing out the drop in the participation of women in the workforce during his poll campaign, Kamal attributed this to the need for women to spend lot of time in unpaid work within the house.

There are certainly people who think that wages for homemakers is a fanciful idea that cannot be implemented. Few may have heard of the International Wages for Housework Campaign started in Italy in 1972, a grassroots women’s network campaigning for payment for all caring work at home and outside. In the mid-1970s, autonomous organisations came up in Britain, USA, and Canada and a movement in Italy advocating the cause of unpaid housework.

International conferences were held in 1980s and 1990s to push the idea. In 1985, the UNO adopted a resolution asking member-countries to start estimating women’s unpaid work by 1995. Sweden introduced subsidies in 2007 to domestic chore which included cleaning, laundering, and ironing.

Venezuela set an example by introducing a system of payment for its homemakers at 80% of the minimum wage since 2006. It is culmination of a struggle launched by the Revolutionary Socialist Women in 2001 to realise the rights of women and implement a constitutional right ‘of homemakers to form associations. Still, the common idea is that it is natural for women to be homemakers and unions are formed to obtain a dignified life for women and respect for their role as homemakers.

Kamal Haasan has not propounded any unheard of idea. It has been discussed and debated even decades ago before independence. A sub-committee for women under National Planning Committee was set up in 1938 at the joint initiative of Nehru and Bose which prepared a Report on Women’s Role in Planned Economy. It pointed out that women’s housework was not receiving any recognition from the State or society and should be recognized as having an economic value and that work should not be considered in any way inferior to other types of work done outside the home.

The report said that lack of recognition of the work of homemaker and constant dependence on men for everything reduced her as a slave and concluded that “this social degradation has brought into contempt the wok of the woman in the home”. Critics may point out that wage system for homework may reinforce and institutionalise specific gender roles whereas the aim should be to respect homemakers and increase women participation in paid workforce.

Judiciary is not blind to the value of women’s unpaid work. In 1966, a court in India ruled that the cost to the husband of maintaining his wife would have been equal to her imaginary salary and so no compensation could be awarded to him. Indian courts have been taking into consideration the monetary value of women’s unpaid work in deciding compensation for loss of life of a woman.

In December last, for instance, a court awarded compensation of Rs. 1.7 million to the family of a homemaker who died in a road accident. The court had observed that fixing a notional income for a homemaker was “a signal to society that the law and courts of the land believe in the value of labour, services, and sacrifices of homemakers” and was an acceptance “of the idea that these activities contribute in a very real way to the economy of the nation”.

There have so far been no protests demanding wages for women homemakers. It is difficult to take this idea literally and enforce it. It has to be accepted in spirit, i.e. acknowledgement and respect for economic and other value of women’s work in home and inclusion of the value of their contribution to household economy and well-being and in the calculation of family income.

The burden of household work should not be thrust solely on women. The system of division of labour for managing households should not be rigid or converted to enslave women silently. — INFA