Should There Be Wages for Housework?

Paying salaries for housework could help build respect for domestic labour, and give women dignity, recognition and independence.

Women filling water. Credit: Shome Basu

Women filling water. Credit: Shome Basu

May 1 is May Day, celebrated the world over in honour of workers

Labour of love. That’s how we define the workload of a homemaker. Their contribution to the economy is seldom counted as productive. Should homemakers be paid? How do you monetise their work? These questions remain taboo.

The closest anybody came to answering these questions was in 2012 when Krishna Tirath, the then Women and Child Development minister, considered a proposal that the work of homemakers be quantified and remunerated by their spouses. This was a flawed argument, at best. It presumed that the onus of the labour fell upon the spouse, conversely meaning that the spouse was the owner. The proposal also reflected the stance of the state in shrugging its own responsibility in the matter.  Besides, making it mandatory for the husband to deposit a portion of his salary in the wife’s account wouldn’t essentially increase the household income, per se.

While it is a fact that the wife is meant to be an equal partner in a marriage, it is often observed that she has no say in the decision making of the household if she is not an earning member. The social structure in a country like India gives her little space to do her own thing, take up a new vocation, help a needy relative, or make any purchase without being questioned. Though the work she does is real, in terms of efforts and its visible output, it is not monetised. It is labour, but not recognised to be so because it’s unpaid.

A study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its 26 member countries and three emerging economies of India, China and South Africa, said that household production constitutes an important part of economic activity. Since this unpaid work is mostly done by women, neglecting to include it would mean underestimating women’s contribution to the economy. The study found that Turkish, Mexican and Indian women spend 4.3 to 5 hours more on unpaid work than the men. It also said that the Indian men spend considerably more time sleeping, eating, watching TV; relaxing in general.

Why then is the work done by homemakers not eligible for being paid? In a predominantly agrarian economy like India, there are ample precedents in religious as well as mythological texts on the role of a woman at home. Parallels can also be found in the West, where there was a clear division of labour between men and women. Most men worked on the farms and the women at home. However, the Industrial Revolution changed that scenario. The men still worked outside the homes, this time in the cities and in the factories, and the women continued to work at home. But the men were now paid in cash, as against the previous earnings in food or in kind. The standardisation of the economy began and money became an important criterion for the worth of people.

The ‘cult of domesticity’ found ground around the same time in the nineteenth century in the middle and upper classes in America and Britain. Similar to Indian culture where the woman is patronised and put on a pedestal, this cult promoted the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness while constraining her sphere of work to the home. This kept married women from entering the job market, as it was looked down upon, making them dependent on the salary of their husbands.

Wages for housework

The International Wages for Housework Campaign started in Italy in 1972 under Selma James. It was based on the premise that housework was the basis of industrial work and should be duly paid for. The movement further spread to Britain and America. Silvia Federici, among the founders of the movement, in her book ‘Wages Against Houseworkwrote: “To ask for wages for housework will by itself undermine the expectations society has of us, since these expectations – the essence of our socialisation – are all functional to our wageless condition in the home.”

More recently, in 2014, Giulia Bongiorno, an Italian lawyer and ex-parliamentarian, proposed that homemakers should be paid a salary as a way of addressing the debate on domestic violence. She argued that most women continue in an abusive relationship because they don’t have a way out, as they are financially dependent on their partner. This does not mean that the salary would be dependent on victimisation, but that the role of the homemaker needs to be revisited and valued. However, the proposal said that the salary needs to be paid either by the state or in the case of an affluent partner, by the partner himself, reducing the argument to the same flaws as that of the proposal by Krishna Tirath.

The International Labour Organisation equates the homemaker with a student, terming housework activities as ‘non-economic’, and the work of homemakers as voluntary. Is a homemaker’s work voluntary in reality? In the Indian context, social pressures lead a woman to give up her dreams of pursuing a career, though some women also choose to stay at home and look after the kids. The participation of women in the ‘labour workforce’, in the conventional sense, has now increased, and more Indian women work outside the home compared to their counterparts from previous generations. Many women are involved in some form of money making activity even as they stay at home and manage their household. But in the absence of such resources, should she  hesitate in asking for something that rightfully belongs to her? A salary.

Venezuela pays its homemakers 80% of the minimum wage (approximately $180 per month) since 2006. Though it is a modest sum, it has been helping women in the country. However, it failed to make much news, maybe strategically so, for the fear that it could set a precedent and the rest of the world may have to follow suit. In a  financially tumultuous world, where ‘austerity’ is the new buzzword, the mention of a salary for homemakers sounds forbidden.

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. Another question asked is who will pay for it? Would it not put additional stress on the economy? But if Venezuela could do it, can the rest of the world in general and India in particular not consider the option and start working out the logistics?

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.