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If mothers and wives were paid

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With the burden of domestic work on their shoulders, women spend more time doing unpaid work than men around the world…

Unrecognised contribution to the economy... Photo: H. Vibhu
Unrecognised contribution to the economy... Photo: H. Vibhu

I t would be fascinating if someone were to calculate the number of person-hours lost on the days that India played a crucial match during the just-concluded World Cup Cricket series. And especially on March 30, the day of the not-to-be-missed India-Pakistan semi-final at Mohali.

Of course, even if we were to undertake such an exercise, we would only look at those with jobs in the formal sector, who get monthly salaries and various benefits. But millions of Indians, the majority, work in the informal sector, with no job security, living each day as if it was the first and the last. For them, missing a day at work, whether for a match, or for illness, is simply not an option.

All in a day's work

The same goes for millions of women in this country who do unpaid work. Match or no match, most women will have to cook and feed their families, clean their homes, wash the clothes and look after children and elders. Such work has never been given a monetary value. No one knows what they contribute as they do a range of unpaid work — from household chores in the home, to strenuous work in agricultural fields, to helping out in small businesses, to home-based work (that is not always paid), to helping out in a variety of tasks that they are expected to do only because they are women. Only in a few countries has a monetary value been placed on such unpaid work.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recently come out with an important study that looks precisely at this issue: women's unpaid work. Titled “Cooking, caring and volunteering: Unpaid work around the world”, the report by Veerle Miranda looks at the amount of time women spend on unpaid work as compared to men.

Miranda found that in each of the countries studied, 26 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and three emerging economies, India, China and South Africa, women spend more time doing unpaid work than men. This is not surprising given that in practically all societies, women are expected to bear the maximum burden of domestic work with men helping out if and when they can. This holds true even in households where women go out of the house for paid work. Yet at the end of the working day, when both the man and the woman return home, it is the woman who is automatically expected to do the household chores.

A current TV advertisement for hot meals served on a low-cost airline sums this up rather well. It shows a housewife, obviously exhausted, preparing a hot meal for her husband who returns from a late flight. He takes it for granted that the meal will be waiting for him. There is nothing in the ad to indicate what the woman's day was like but given the way she thumps the plate down in front of the husband, one can well imagine. It would never have occurred to the man to figure out a way of relieving his wife of this particular chore.

Huge differences

The ILO study found a range of difference in the amount of time women in the different countries spent on unpaid work as compared to men. For instance, women in India, Mexico and Turkey spent 4.3 to 5 hours more than men on unpaid work as compared to a difference of just one hour between women and men in the Nordic countries. And while the women cooked, cleaned and fed the children, Indian fathers, husbands and sons spent time sleeping, eating, talking to friends, watching television and relaxing.

Apart from the gender difference in time spent, the value of such unpaid work was not factored into economic calculations that assess a country's development. Miranda concludes, “Our calculations suggest that between one-third and half of all valuable economic activity in OECD countries is not accounted for in the traditional measure of well-being, such as GDP per capita.”

To many, this would appear to be a non-issue given the gravity of issues that women face in terms of violence, inside and outside the home, many forms of discrimination, sexual harassment and assault etc. Yet, there is a good reason for assessing the extent of unpaid work women do, the gender gap between women and men on this count, and the value of their labour.

Quantifying the value

In fact as far back as 1985, women's groups advocated assessing the value of unpaid work. At the Third World Conference of Women in Nairobi that year, it was recommended that the value of household goods and services be included in a country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP): “Concrete steps should be taken to quantify the unremunerated contribution of women to agriculture, food production, reproduction and household activities.”

Another strong reason for putting a value to such work is that it makes us value better those who do such work for money — domestic helps. In India, such women — and they are mostly women — are grossly underpaid. There is no standard set for the amount they should be paid for the kind of work they are expected to do. What is even more disappointing is that women, who earn well in the formal sector, and who realise that they are better equipped to concentrate on their careers because they have such paid domestic help, also do not put a high enough value on this work. If unpaid work was given a voluntary value, all such women could benefit.

Gender assumptions

Ultimately, the issue is not the amount of time spent on unpaid work, or whether women should be paid for such work, but the expectation that they will do it unquestioningly and for all time to come. Surely, with so much changing around us, this is yet another arena where gender roles must be questioned, where the drudgery and burden of household work must be shared by men and women, and where those who work silently to hold up millions of homes around the world should be given the recognition and appreciation that they deserve.

Email the writer:

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

Ultimately, the issue is not the amount of time spent on unpaid work... but the expectation that they will do it unquestioningly and for all time to come.


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