Cong Vows ‘Salary’ for Homemakers in Assam: How to Value Chores?

Imagine a job where you’re working non-stop. Over 160 mn women in our patriarchal society have been doing just this.

3 min read

Video Editor: Rahul Sanpui

Camera: Athar Rather

(This article was first published on 4 February 2021. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after Congress promised Rs 2,000 allowance for homemakers, ahead of Assam Assembly elections.)

Imagine a job where you're working non-stop.

At a workplace where you are not eligible to avail leaves – even if you are terribly sick, sometimes.

And there is no looking forward to salary day – well, because you won't get paid for what you do.

Would you accept the job?

Over 160 million women in India's patriarchal society already have been doing this 'job' for ages. For these women, cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and elderly, and all the other activities that require a household to function constitute their main occupation, according to Census 2011.

The Supreme Court in January 2021 said that woman's work at home must be placed on par with her office-going husband. The court said:

“Fixing a national income for a homemaker was a signal to society that the law and courts of land believe in the value of labour, services and sacrifices of homemakers.”

Actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan too reignited the debate when he said women's labour must be recognised and they be paid a salary, as a part of his election pitch ahead of the upcoming polls in Tamil Nadu. This was backed by some like Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and slammed by a few others like actor Kangana Ranaut who said that women performed these chores out of “love and duty.”

While the debate is crucial all over the world, it is more so in India. In case the COVID-19 lockdown didn't make you realise this, here are a few big points of consideration, as per Time Use in India Report, 2019:

  • On an average, women spend nearly 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services for household members versus 97 minutes spent by men.
  • 134 minutes of unpaid care-giving services for household members done by women as compared to the 76 minutes spent by men

This 24*7*365 days running around is dismissed as "duty", as something homemakers do out of "love and care," completely ignoring the time and effort they put into it.

If you hire someone to do the following chores, you would be approximately be spending:

  • Cook for your family - Rs 6,000/month
  • Housekeeping - Rs 4,000/month
  • Day care & tutoring for children - Rs 15,000/month
  • Take care of elderly - Rs 5,000/month
  • Drive around family members - Rs 8,000/month
  • Budgeting, buying groceries - Rs 6,000/month

You would be spending Rs 45,000 on an average, every month.

This would be the estimated value of a homemaker's labour in any metro city in India.

This leads us to the fact that this entire work remains unrecognised and unaccounted for in the Indian economy.

According to research by the International Monetary Fund, raising women’s participation in the labour force to the same level as men can boost India’s GDP by 27 percent. One way to do this is by giving homemakers, the majority of whom are women, a salary.

And more than anything, this will help shatter the stereotypical image of Indian women who are portrayed as “domestic and social parasites living on their husbands’ earnings and contributing nothing.”

So the debate should ideally be not about whether or not homemakers be paid salary but:

How do we put value to homemaker’s work?

We need to debate whether:

  • By focusing on providing "basic income" are we cutting short women's access to education, to pursue their dreams?
  • By commodifying housework are we increasing the burden of domestic chores on women, while their husbands share no load?

The policy should also focus on:

  • How can we help them put this grant to expand their capabilities, skills and freedom?
  • And more importantly, we should be asking where will the money for salary come from?

Back in 2012, it was suggested by the then Union government that homemakers will get salaries from their husbands.

This proposal never saw the light of the day. But if this were to be considered, it only increases male entitlement.

It strengthens the stereotype of the husband being the provider. It becomes the very opposite of empowerment – with women being completely at the mercy of their husbands, all over again.

Demand for wages against housework was first raised in UK's Manchester nearly 50 years ago in 1972. In India, the conversation gained steam in 2012 and died a swift death. But without answering these pertinent questions through proper policy measures, we may still be discussing whether homemaker's labour should be monetised 50 years later – at the cost of millions of women, across generations.

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