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Putting a price on women’s unpaid work in India

Most housework — overwhelmingly performed by women around the world — goes unpaid. A political party in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is putting forward a bold proposal that could change that.

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In this July 15, 2019, photo, a woman walks into a house with a vessel of drinking water filled from a water truck in Chennai in Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. 

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Manish Swarup/AP

Cleaning, cooking, taking care of children. These are typical tasks performed at home that are often unpaid — and overwhelmingly done by women — throughout the world.

But a political party in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is putting forward a bold proposal that could change that — by paying for housework.

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The proposal, part of an electoral campaign manifesto put forward by Makkal Needhi Maiam, a new political party founded by actor Kamal Haasan, is short on specifics at the moment, like how the wages would work and who specifically would receive them. But the idea has prompted hot debate among some members of Parliament and on social media

Prabha Kotiswaran, a professor of law and justice at King’s College London, says there’s quite a bit of precedent for the idea — and that it’s “not entirely inconceivable that such a proposal could find traction,” she told The World.

Last spring, for example, India’s federal government rolled out a series of monthly cash transfers of 500 rupees (about $6.85) to women, a “recognition of the increased burdens of managing the household on the part of the government,” Kotiswaran said.

Further groundwork for this kind of proposal can also be found in India’s court system, where judges have at times actually put a value on the unpaid domestic and care work of women who died in road accidents in order to determine how to award financial settlements to their families, according to Kortiswaran’s research

Even before the pandemic, the burden of unpaid domestic and care work fell disproportionately on women.

The International Labor Organization estimates that more than 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work daily, three-quarters of it performed by women. Were those workers paid an hourly minimum wage, it would represent 9% of the global gross domestic product. The pandemic has only made this imbalance worse, according to UN Women.

A woman pushes a wheelbarrow with a child riding on it.

An Indian woman pushes a cart with her child as she works at a brick kiln during lockdown to curb the spread of new coronavirus on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Sunday, May 10, 2020. 

Credit:

Channi Anand/AP

“Where women's unpaid work is just viewed as unlimited and drags on for hours and hours, whether it’s domestic work or care work, I think putting a price on women's work through wages will actually set boundaries to the kind of work they are doing."

Prabha Kotiswaran, law and justic professor, King’s College London

Kotiswaran says, should wages for housework become a reality, the impact could be significant for middle-class and working-class housewives in India.

“Where women's unpaid work is just viewed as unlimited and drags on for hours and hours, whether it’s domestic work or care work, I think putting a price on women's work through wages will actually set boundaries to the kind of work they are doing,” she said.

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Moreover, Kotiswaran believes such a proposal could have ripple effects in sectors of the economy with high percentages of female workers, including teaching, nursing and health care, which are, she explained, “often simply understood to be an extension of the work women do in the household,” and are often underpaid or have poor working conditions.

“I’m hoping this would really be a way of politicizing millions of women in India who are housewives, and trigger changes within property law and family law and ultimately mobilize women,” Kotiswaran said.

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The proposal has also been criticized, including by those who say it would enforce gender stereotypes and discourage women from entering the traditional workforce. According to a recent government economic survey, 60% of women between the ages of 15 to 59 were engaged in full-time housework.

But Kotiswaran disagrees, arguing that while wages for housework cannot be the only solution for gender inequality and women’s economic advancement, they could be a potent force for changing the way women’s work is valued in Indian society. 

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“In a country like India where gender norms [are] so entrenched, the only way you can even begin to reduce or redistribute unpaid work is by recognizing it has some value, and the best way sometimes to appreciate the value of such work is to put a price on it."

Prabha Kotiswaran, law and justic professor, King’s College London

“In a country like India where gender norms [are] so entrenched, the only way you can even begin to reduce or redistribute unpaid work is by recognizing it has some value, and the best way sometimes to appreciate the value of such work is to put a price on it,” she said. 

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