Instead of asking a man to pay his wife for her domestic work, the state must create jobs for women outside the home in order to truly empower them
Recently during a press conference called by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Minister of State (Independent Charge), Krishna Tirath, proposed the formulation of a bill through which a certain percentage of a husband’s salary would be compulsorily transferred to his wife’s bank account to compensate her for all the domestic work she performs for the family. According to the Minister, this percentage of husbands’ salaries would not be taxed and would provide women the much needed source of income to run the household better, and more importantly, to spend on her own, personal consumption. In a later clarification, the Minister identified this payment as an “honorarium” and not a salary which is to be paid to wives for all the services they otherwise render for free.
This proposition has not gone down well, especially with women of higher income brackets who see such proposed action as unnecessary intervention in the realm of the private, i.e. the realm of familial relations. Many such women also believe that this government intervention amounts to reducing wives into “glorified maids” who need to be paid every time they walk into the kitchen, wash the baby, sweep the house, etc. Sadly, what is sidelined amid all the clamour and jokes about commercialisation of the mia-biwi relationship is the necessity of recognising the back-breaking work performed by women to sustain their families. Of course, what we also lose sight of is the sheer hollowness of such proposed legislation. For example, such legislation, if implemented, would not provide women a source of income which they earn independently of their husbands. Instead, women would continue to depend on their husband’s earnings and employment status, and thus, remain dependent on the family structure for their individual financial sustenance. Indeed, the problem with the proposed legislation is not that it is unnecessary and demeaning, but that it is informed by a poor understanding of economics surrounding household work and women’s labour in general. Clearly, the question then is whether the Indian state is even serious about uplifting the position of the woman within the home and in recognising her contribution to the national economy.
Assigning an economic value to women’s domestic labour is a long-standing debate. The international women’s movement has continuously debated the question and reached many important conclusions. It is now time for the larger society to engage with the movement’s propositions seriously. First, as a society we must learn to accept that there is sheer drudgery involved in day-to-day household work. The fact that such work is performed by a woman for her husband and other family members in the name of “care” and “nurturing” cannot be used to conceal that this is a thankless job which the majority of women feel burdened by. Just because some women do not have to enter the kitchen every day since their maid does the needful, we cannot write-off the helplessness with which the average woman walks towards her kitchen hearth, every day without fail. Here, there is no retirement age, no holiday, and definitely, no concept of overtime.
Second, we must realise that the process whereby women’s domestic labour has been rendered uneconomic activity, is a historical one. It was with the emergence of industrial society and the resulting separation between the home and the workplace that women’s housework lost value whereas men’s labour outside the home fetched wages. Third, as a society we must accept that while many are uncomfortable with providing an economic value to women’s domestic labour, chores such as washing, cleaning, cooking, child rearing, etc., are already assigned such a value by the market when need be. After all, many middle-class homes buy such services through the hiring of maids, paying for playschool education, crèche facilities, etc. Fourth, women’s domestic labour must be accounted for in the economy precisely because it is one of the contributing forces in the reproduction of labour power expended by this country’s working masses. In fact, because a woman’s domestic labour is devalued by the economy, a man’s wage can be kept low. For example, if all families were to pay every day for services like washing, cooking, cleaning, etc., because women of the household did not perform such duties, the breadwinners of each family would need to be paid higher wages so that they can afford to buy such services off the market.
This being the reality surrounding women’s unpaid, domestic labour, where does the actual solution lie? Does it lie in redistributing limited family incomes between husband and wife, or, in redistributing the national income so as to enhance individual family incomes, and hence, the woman’s share within the improved family consumption? Importantly, while pressing for valuation of women’s domestic labour, the progressive women’s movement has always argued that if the value of unpaid housework is paid but does not add to or increase the total household income, such remuneration amounts to nothing. Hence, one of the most important conclusions reached on this question of unpaid domestic labour is that the state should pay for it, especially by providing women gainful employment, special funding, subsidised home appliances, free health care, etc. In this way, women would earn through an independent source of income and be freed of an overt dependence on the family structure for their consumption. There would also be a gradual undermining of the sexual division of labour which has resulted in women being tied to their homes and unable to do little else.
Of course, what has not won much attention so far is the fact that the proposed legislation posits wages for housework rather than employment for women as a long-term solution. Indeed, questions have been raised whether the proposed legislation is implementable, but not whether it does the needful. For example, will the government be able to put in place the required administrative machinery? How exactly is the value of women’s household work to be calculated, or simply put, how many bais will equal a wife? Will the number of family members she rears determine whether she is entitled to greater compensation? And what of widowed women who do not have a husband’s salary to draw on?
Absolves the state
However, implementation is far from the real problem with such legislation. Mechanisms can always be put in place if administrative sincerity prevails. The real problem with the Ministry’s endeavour is the rationale by which it is driven. The proposed legislation should be criticised because it absolves the Indian state of the responsibility it owes to women who contribute daily in sustaining the national economy. Indeed, if the proposed legislation is formulated and implemented, it will only result in undervaluing and underpaying women’s domestic labour.
To elucidate, if we actually sit down to calculate the cost of all the different household chores a wife does for free, the figure would easily touch amounts that in no way can be compensated by a small percentage of the husband’s wages. Furthermore, with varied family incomes, such legislation would result in women being remunerated differently for the same kind and same amount of domestic work. In the case of the average working class or lower-middle class family where the total family income is anywhere between Rs.2,000 to Rs.10,000 per month, such legislation would assign women a pittance as an economic value for their back-breaking housework. This pittance will not empower the woman as the total family income remains the same. Without a growth in the actual family income, neither will such families be able to change their consumption pattern, nor will the nature of household work change so as to enable women to do other things instead of just labouring at home.
Clearly then, the issue at stake is how to minimise housework for women so that they too can step out of the home to earn, to enhance family incomes and to have greater say in family as well as public matters. Greater employment generation for women by the state, and widespread introduction of facilities like crèches at all workplaces, subsidised home appliances, unhindered promotion post child birth/maternity leave, etc. are the need of the hour. While direct employment helps to create women who are financially independent, the provision of the latter helps women to remain in the labour market, despite starting a family. If the average woman is to be freed of the yoke of household drudgery then it is evidently the Indian state which has to pay by creating concrete conditions for her greater economic participation outside the home.
(Maya John is an activist and researcher based in Delhi University.)