On 21st Dec 2020, Makkal Needhi Maiam, the political party headed by South Indian superstar-turned-politician Kamal Hasan, in its “Seven point Governance & Economic Agenda”¹ promised remuneration to homemakers for their unpaid housework in a move to lend recognition and dignity to the labour of women at home. It may well be the first step towards formally monetizing women’s work and even the first step towards a universal basic income (UBI).
As the country has never seen such a proposal before, a good place to start may be to define who a “homemaker” is. Must the homemaker be defined as a “woman” who engages in unpaid care and housework or as a “person” who engages in such work? Using the latter definition may be a step towards normalizing such work as non-gender specific but also runs the risk of being gender neutral and hence, gender non-responsive by failing to adequately meet the needs of women. The dataset below shows us the percentage of men & women aged 15-59, who have participated in various activities in a day in 2019. The gap in unpaid domestic work between the genders is clearly seen below, and the fact that women take on so much more of it makes it necessary to emphasize the gender identity of the homemaker.
|Area||Gender||Employment & Unpaid domestic work||Related activities|
Source- Time Use Survey,2019 (NSO)
There is also the pertinent question of the number of hours of unpaid work that would suffice for remuneration. For instance, there are many women who are employed in part-time jobs (which do not have the same work contracts and commitments as regular employment). Would they also fall under this security provision that the policy envisions? Another consideration that must not be overlooked is rooted in the intangible manoeuvres that cost homemakers a lot of their time and mental energy. Time management, making sure everyone’s schedule is unaffected, agenda management, financial management, performing the role of a tutor for the children at home, assisting in school work, and care work for children and the elderly are time-consuming and energy-intensive tasks. One must also consider whether women with special children, children with disabilities, and those with bedridden senior citizens to care for must be compensated much higher than others.
The task of working out the remuneration to be paid to homemakers is a massive one. The party will have to consider whether the amount can be calculated based on the size of the house, the size of the household, or both? Larger households require more labour and there are a variety of tasks that are taken on by homemakers every day. Does one then put a price tag on the various activities associated with homemaking like cooking, cleaning the house, doing the dishes, making the beds, grocery shopping, toilet cleaning and so many more after which one may add the value of the labour involved in each of these tasks? An alternative approach would be to pay based on the number of hours spent on “homemaking” regardless of the type of task that was performed. A careful cost and benefit analysis of these two approaches to payment must be undertaken to arrive at a justified figure. Western feminists made a model to monetize household work done by women by assigning each task a specific value derived from how much the household help charges when she’s appointed to do so, but in India, domestic work is an informal market and the “value” ascribed to each task is highly discretionary and ceases to be a practical way forward.
The rural-urban divide among homemakers must also be accounted for while calculating costs as rural women’s responsibilities are very different from their urban counterparts. For rural women, walking long distances to fetch water and firewood will be additional tasks, as well as animal husbandry, livestock management and managing the family farm. The women in urban spaces spent 293 minutes on domestic work, while rural women spent 301 minutes running the house-hold. ²
It is common knowledge among public policy professionals that even well-intended policies may have unintended consequences. It is possible to gain an understanding of the unintended effects by examining the socio-economic and cultural context in which this policy is implemented. Undoubtedly, remuneration for homemakers is one way of recognizing the value of their contribution to a well-functioning economy. It makes apparent their invisible labour and lends dignity to their work, in the best way that the post-globalization world knows how. However, one might wonder if this move may serve to incentivize women to remain homemakers. One of the reasons for the drop in Female Labour Force Participation in urban areas is the income-effect of households. ³
In several studies, it has been proven that as household income increases, an increasing number of married women withdraw from the labour force. This is exacerbated by a social phenomenon where women usually marry men who are more educated than they are. The increase in income and economic mobility of the household may discourage the wife from joining the labour market as she occupies herself with ‘status producing household work’. When there are monetary gains to such work, it could serve as an incentive for women to engage in more of it. On the flip side, evidence points to how men tend to enter traditionally “feminine” domains where there is monetary compensation involved, for instance most tailors who work outside the home as well as cooks at social gatherings are men. Urban Indian women spend 293 minutes each day on unpaid care work as opposed to urban men who spend only 29 minutes.⁴ If paid for, this care work that Indian women do would equal roughly 3.1% of the country’s GDP. It may be interesting to observe whether this policy actually encourages men to take to homemaking and whether the reluctance of men to do their fair share of housework so far is due to deeply entrenched patriarchal conditioning or lack of monetary recognition. It may also be worth studying if both these factors intersect to create such behaviour among men.
It is also important to examine the effect of this policy on women who are already engaged in work outside the household and who comprise the female labour force. The pandemic and the accompanying social distancing norms compelled middle-class working women to forfeit domestic help and this led to the re-emergence of gender roles within the household.⁵ When the benefits of the proposed policy start accruing to lower-middle class homemakers, they may choose not to seek employment as domestic workers in other households as they are now being paid for their labour in their own homes. Unless there is parallel work done on sensitizing Indian men to contribute equally to household labour, the entire burden of this would fall on working women and cost them time, energy and mind space that they had earlier employed in fulfilling job responsibilities outside the home. The opportunity cost of a woman’s time would emerge as an issue to contend with, both for the woman being paid for her unpaid care work at home and for the woman who is now doing without house help.
Another possible social consequence could be that men may stop handing over their share of income for their wives to budget and spend for the household. It is possible that since the wife is now viewed by the husband as an “earning member”, he may cease to view the household as a single unit and take for granted the fact that he need not concern himself with household expenditure on the children’s education and healthcare as his wife’s income would suffice. Patriarchal dictates already construct childcare as a woman’s responsibility and a woman’s economic independence may unfortunately serve as the final justification that men may employ to absolve themselves even further of that responsibility.
This situation may then lead women to feel that they may have been better off earlier. The possible consequences of policies have to be understood through the social hierarchies that frame behaviour as well. As an additive effect, men may withdraw from whatever little care work they were doing, as in their eyes, women are now being “paid for it”. In order to ensure that the policy generates the desired benefits and reduces a woman’s dependence on the man’s income, the amount given as remuneration must be larger than the husband’s income but this could lead to other social problems like alcoholism, domestic violence, etc. Intra-household resource allocation is rife with gendered power dynamics, especially in the socio-cultural context of India.⁶ According to the India Human Development Survey of 2018, less than two per cent of agricultural land is inherited by women.⁷ In studies on joint titles provided to married women in developing countries, it was found that yields in maize production increased by 56% in plots where women solely controlled the output as opposed to 15% where both owned the plot but men controlled the produce as de-facto heads of the household.⁸ This points to how land productivity can be boosted if women control the output of land rather than if they have to forfeit such control to the men of the household. Intra-household inequalities result in men controlling the output of land, even for “joint” titles that are awarded.
The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2011 survey, in its interviews with married women (15-49 years) found that one in five women in Delhi and half of the women in the sample taken in Uttar Pradesh revealed that they ate after the men in their family had finished. A phone based survey by Social Attitudes Research for India (SARI) conducted a similar study in 2016 in urban India, yielding shockingly similar results. It found that about four in ten women in urban Uttar Pradesh and three in ten women in Delhi ate after the men.⁹ These leftovers lack nutritional value required for maintenance of physical and mental health.¹⁰ Hence, when intra-household resource allocations of even basic items like food and income are so skewed¹¹, it is absolutely fair to pre-empt and check for the social consequence of men forcefully appropriating the remuneration of the homemaker.
Hence, a robust monitoring and evaluation framework of this policy must be put in place to check for and control factors that may potentially reverse the benefits that the policy hopes to deliver to women for their unrecognized house work. How would the policy ensure that the men in the household do not usurp the money? Can the policy check this undesirable tendency by putting in place a system of incentives where the male head of household also receives a certain type of social security? Should women who find themselves in such situations be given the option to use a helpline, or online registration of such grievances so they may be re-compensated for their loss? If this system were to work then what would be the policy pipeline for this and who would be the first points of contact for these women to approach? There may also be the risk of such monitoring frameworks enabling high-discretion actions. Policies that enable high discretionary power to be exercised by authorities are susceptible to corruption.¹²
There are indeed numerous ethical dilemmas to consider, consequences to pre-empt and frameworks to be put in place to ensure that there are continued, sustainable benefits delivered to homemakers, lending dignity and recognition to their work which was hitherto unrecognized. If these conditions are addressed expertly, then there is much reason to be optimistic about this move to finally recognize the invisible work of our country’s women. This policy has the potential to reduce the poverty of many families that have the male as the only earning member and who may have lost their jobs amidst the pandemic. It would free women from a constant cycle of reliance on male family members, inspire them and enhance their individuality, their agency and their voice. The non-monetary and non-competitive perception of household work has diminished the position of homemakers in Indian society and if they are paid for their work, their social status would improve and their material freedoms would be broadened. Having financial resources of their own would empower women to leave abusive marriages and take themselves out of situations that are detrimental to their safety and well-being. It would make a significant difference to their overall status and place within the family and community.
A final, interesting point to ponder would be the possibility of homemakers across the country being able to unite, much in the same way as a labor union. This sort of union would give women the collective strength and bargaining power to constantly ask for better and demand from the state what is rightfully theirs. Venezuela is the first country to have formed a homemaker’s union where the art of keeping house is accorded the status of a “profession” much like teachers, healthworkers, decorators, chefs, etc. Lizardi Prada, the founder of the Homemakers Union¹³ has managed to unite socialist women who are also homemakers and they collectively work to access education and information which they may need to improve their bargaining power vis-a-vis the state. In India, the caste-endogamous family is the unit of society and women are hardly a monolithic entity. Although organizations like the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is one of the earliest and most successful efforts at unionizing women, a more intricate network of women who are not necessarily involved in income generating activities outside the household (full-time homemakers) being able to unite and bargain for social protections would be a revolutionary thing to see unfold. Policies should not be a one-time top-down process and are more likely to generate sustained benefits through constant interaction between citizens and the state. As a long term goal, women being able to unite across caste and religious lines would send out a strong message that individuals are the unit of social organization, not the family. It is this position as individual citizens that women would be able to divorce themselves from roles like “wives” or “mothers” and raise their demands as workers who were keeping the wheels of the “productive” labor economy well-oiled with their own share of labor within the space of the home, no less productive than the conventionally understood labor economy.
- Naig, U. (2020, December 21). Seven Point Governance & Economic Agenda. https://twitter.com. https://twitter.com/udhavn/status/1340919405123784704
- Saha, D. (2017, May 4). Rising Income Levels, Stability Linked To Declining Female Workforce Participation In India. http://www.indiaspend.com. https://www.indiaspend.com/rising-income-levels-stability-linked-to-declining-female-workforce -participation-in-india-84594
- Oxfam, Roy, S. N., & Mukhopadhyay, P. (2019). What Matters for Urban Women’s Work. Oxfam. https://www.cprindia.org/research/papers/what-matters-urban-women%E2%80%99s-work
- Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation. (2020, Sept 29). NSS REPORT: TIME USE IN INDIA- 2019 (JANUARY – DECEMBER 2019). pib.gov.in. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1660028
- Chauhan, P. (2020, October 24). Gendering COVID-19: Impact of the Pandemic on Women’s Burden of Unpaid Work in India. https://link.springer.com/. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12147-020-09269-w
- Dutta, D. (2018). Mind the Gap. http://www.oxfamindia.org. https://www.oxfamindia.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/Full%20Report%20-%20Low-Res%20Version%20%28Single%20Pages%29.pdf
- Pachauri, S. (2019, Feb 19). The invisibility of gender in Indian agriculture. http://www.downtoearth.org.in. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/agriculture/the-invisibility-of-gender-in-indian-agriculture 63290
- Agarwal, B. (2003). Agrarian Change, Gender and Land Rights. Blackwell Publishing.
- Chakraborty, S. (2019, July 10). India Suffers Because Women Eat The Last And The Least. poshan.outlookindia.com. https://poshan.outlookindia.com/story/poshan-news-the-game-changer/333941
- Coffey, D. (2017, January 03). When Women Eat Last. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/When-women-eat-last/article16978948.ece
- Bhattacharyya, R. (2019, March 7). Gender Pay Gap High in India. Economics Times. Gender pay gap high in India: Men get paid Rs 242 every hour, women earn Rs 46 less Read more at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/gender-pay-gap-still-high-women-in-i ndia-earn-19-pc-less-than-men-report/articleshow/68302223.cms?utm_
- Kelkar, V., & Shah, A. (2019). In Service of the Republic. Penguin Books.
- Prada, L., & Sugget, J. (2009, July 7). Venezuela’s Homemakers Union: An Interview with Founder and Coordinator Lizardi Prada. https://venezuelanalysis.com. https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4597
The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.