Kamal Haasan recently announced through his political party Makkal Neethi Manram’s political promise that he was in favour of paying women for household chores. While many argue that such a move would help visibilise the unpaid work done by women, and eventually contribute to improving the value of unpaid work and domestic chores, many others feel it will be an assault on traditional family values. The response of actor Kangana Ranaut led to a barrage of comments culminating into arguments around the value of women being diminished if they were paid for their work that was their natural forte.
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.
Kamal Haasan’s stirring of the hornet’s nest should be grounds for much deeper introspection. Is payment for work going to actually elevate the position of women as argued? Or is going to further institutionalise patriarchal roles of women’s responsibilities within the homestead and men’s outside? Who will pay for this ‘salary’ for housewives? Husbands? Government? Tax subsidies? Should there be payment for household work, rather making it a special pay for women?
In 2007, Sweden, which ranks top on the European Union’s Gender Equality Index, introduced subsidies to domestic chores (cleaning, laundry and ironing). Thirteen years later, studies indicate that those who opted for subsidies reported more hours of earned income (around $2000 more annually than those in the same bracket who did not avail of the subsidies). There seem to be improvements in work conditions for domestic workers too by institutionalising proper pays and work conditions for them. But there are many arguments around whether subsidies for doing domestic chores is actually the way out to address the household chores parity, with critics calling it socialism for the rich and others saying that household chores are a part of work. Critics also argue that these subsidies tend to perpetuate gender stereotypes further. A significant number of women employed as domestic workers tend to be women, and immigrants.
No matter what the response to Haasan’s proposal will be, a few things are certain. The data pointing to wide gender disparity when it comes to work participation, unpaid work, pay gap, etc and the wide-ranging arguments reinforce that we have a long way to go when it comes to rejecting patriarchal norms that entrench ‘love’ and ‘duty’ deep in family values.
One, it is not just about whether the unpaid work of women at home is recognised, it is also about the more basic question of why domestic work is seen as the domain of women. Manu, the patron saint of patriarchy in the Indian context, associates the fire-place, the grinding stone, the broom, the pestle and mortar and the water-pot, with impurity/sin – all activities that he also linked with women’s responsibilities. From matrimonial advertisements to television serials, from films to the neighbourhood gossip mill, all celebrate “homely” brides, “good” housewives, who will take care of their families well. The Twitter debate following Ranaut’s response to the Makkal Neethi Manram poll promise laid bare arguments that spoke about not monetising the value of the labour of love performed by wives and mothers.
Girls are traditionally “trained” for marriage by being taught how to cook from a very young age. The phrase, “padhke kya karogi, chulha chauka hi to Karna hai” (why study when you have to manage the hearth) has been heard across geographies. Several adolescent girls at the Voices from Margins webinar series hosted by Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices during the lockdown last year underlined the increased burden of household chores for young girls and the consequent impact on their studies. The pandemic’s impact on unpaid work by women across the globe has already been well documented.
Until and unless sexist association of domestic chores with women is called out and questioned, there will be a range of justifications to ensure women stay within the hearth. The argument of paying them for it or not will not change the situation.
Two, the second question is how domestic work is viewed. In addition to the centuries-old argument made by Manu, the recent reference to “pathetic” living conditions of our cricketers in Australia because they have to make their own beds and clean their toilet is another case in point. Whether the cricketers made this link or those in the newsroom did, the message is clear. Cleaning toilets, making beds, are inferior tasks, unworthy of some.
The casteist association with domestic chores, and within it, tasks related to cleaning toilets has been forever connected to the oppressed castes. Domestic workers are, even today, treated as polluting, with households laying limits on where they can enter and what they can touch. Not just that, domestic workers are seen as dispensable. Linking back to the pandemic, once again, many domestic workers pointed out that they were laid off without salaries and with no certainty of when they would be hired again. Domestic workers mentioned how while they were forced to undergo COVID tests before being allowed into societies where they worked, their employers were allowed to roam around scot-free.
Domestic work has to be treated as a profession, and workers must be accorded fair wages. Being seen as unskilled work for women who are not capable of doing any other work, thereby falling outside labour legislations, said Bharti Birla from the ILO at a webinar last year. Unless there is value associated with domestic work, payment for household chores to homemakers alone will fail to bring about any far-reaching changes in the stature of women and gender relationships.
Three, concepts of family, rooted in these patriarchal constructs of “love” and “duty” derive from a dominant male gaze over the years. It draws from one that has led people to believe that not just through history, even prehistory, women sat at home, while the men turned the wheels of time (literally and metaphorically). Not just that, it is also time to relook at serious discrepancies within the concept of family, introspecting into how the following are understood – gender roles, issues of consent, child sexual abuse and violence. Families are not spaces for equals, but hierarchical institutions with a patriarch and patriarchal rules. Payment for household chores is not independent of these debates and discussions on the larger questions of patriarchy and gender.
Overall, it is interesting that invisibilised work carried out by women becomes a moot point in an election. The poll promise also comes at a time when government policy-making is expressing interest in putting a number on the time spent by men and women on paid and unpaid work. A neoliberal government may even put its weight behind such a law, arguing the business case for paying for household work. But let us be aware of larger arguments of patriarchy and gender.
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.
Anusha Chandrasekharan is Senior Programme Manager, Communications at Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices.