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Wages for housework?

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A rather flamboyant promise was made by actor Kamal Haasan’s party in Tamil Nadu to pay homemakers for their undervalued and unrecognised household work. Though the promise was made to win goodwill and votes in a highly competitive electoral landscape, it undoubtedly throws light on an important yet ignored aspect of the feminist movement.

In 1972, the “wages for housework” campaign found its roots at the third National Women Liberation Conference in Manchester, England. As the name suggests, the demand was simple: recognise everyday household and care work performed by every woman, as an extension of her “duty” towards her family, to be a legitimate profession. The aim of the movement was to end the power relation which is a result of such unpaid labour.

The women rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s marched on to bust the myth that household work does not contribute to a country’s capitalist production. It was presented that women, by performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing and maintaining the health of the family, made possible the maintenance of the working class at “subsistence-level wages” and directly contribute towards production and industry.

In 2019, the Global Women Strike network presented a policy idea of “care income” to compensate care work for people, environment and the natural world. In 2020, the consultative council, formed during the Poland protests, announced that it was seeking to put forth payment for household work as one of its legislative demands. Henceforth, the demand of “wages for housework” is alive and relevant.

In India, more women have access to education than ever before, however, their participation in the workforce remains low. Approximately, 54% of women between the ages of 15 and 59 are not available to work due to domestic responsibilities. Domestic workers form the backbone of many urban households, but they still await the benefits of labour laws. Though domestic work has enabled women to enter the labour market, it still has not translated into gender equality.

One wonders where to draw the line of payable household work and the work which is essential for basic sustenance and maintenance of the household. There is vagueness when it comes to identifying the boundaries of domestic chores, what constitutes labour and what constitutes duty?

Some groups opine that recognising household work as a profession will only reinforce the gender norms and notions which the feminist movement has been fighting against. Pushing women into household work strengthens the distinction between a man’s role and a woman’s role towards their families and in the community and discourages men from sharing household responsibilities. The objective of the feminist movement is not to demand wages, but to free the women of the shackles of daily drudgery and routine chores to enable them to equally participate in the social sphere.

The only way forward is to redefine the concepts of masculinity, care and paternity. The shift from household and care responsibilities from women to hired domestic helps still supports the notion of charging women with care responsibilities. Additionally, it is pertinent to recognise the rights of domestic workers in the country and to extend the benefits of fair employment terms given their silent yet, indispensable support in running a majority of the households in the urban and rural space and thus elevating the status of domestic duties and chores.

If taken seriously, the promise made by the Tamil Nadu party can effectively disintegrate the structural inequality which has been perpetuated from the sheer lack of understanding of the importance of care work.

kritikabhatt997@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 4:58:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/wages-for-housework/article33887579.ece

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