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To Pay or Not to Pay for Domestic Work

This article contains excerpts and key takeaways from our conversation with Mitali Nikore. In this episode of Inter-Linked, we discuss the issue of whether homemakers should be paid for domestic work. We discuss the nascent political developments and weave together the arguments posed by feminist academicians and practitioners on the opposite ends of the debate. We also look at why there are better alternatives to wages-for-housework in the Indian context. 

Mitali Nikore is the founder of Nikore Associates and a New Delhi-based economist. She is a Development Consultant for the Indian Resident Mission of the Asian Development Bank, and a short-term consultant to the World Bank. Mitali has been writing and researching extensively in the mainstream media and leads research inquiries on infrastructure financing gaps, gender-based discrimination, framing policy, programmatic and project-level interventions. 

You can listen to the entire episode on Spotify, here.

At the outset, I ask Mitali if she agrees or does not agree with the wages-for-housework movement. She outrightly rejects the idea that such a concept should ever exist in the Indian context. She indicates that the benefits of paying wages-for-housework, or conditional cash transfers, attaches a “gendered connotation” to performing housework, for which, the homemaker will be paid only if they perform such work. As a government policy too, this move suggests that women will be paid only if they perform housework. This is, in Mitali’s opinion, a problematic approach.

The politics behind wages-for-housework

The “either/or” construction of whether paying for women’s domestic chores is a dole “or” that finally women’s domestic work will be recognised as a consequence of such a (political) stance is not the way we should construct the phenomenon of governments announcing such schemes for women. According to Mitali,

Is this a recognition of domestic chores? Yes. Is it being used for political gains? Yes.

Mitali also asks a very pertinent question: 

Why are we calling it women’s work? We need to start by correcting ourselves. It is not women’s work. It is housework.

In the case of Tamil Nadu, the party that ended up winning was not because of its policy focus on wages-for-housework, or a conditional housework-based transfer. In West Bengal, for example, the Lakshmi Bhandar Scheme, launched by the Trinamool Congress in 2021, is an unconditional cash transfer, which has received a positive response. This is because of the design of the scheme, which is not conditional. Making it conditional on housework comes up with challenges of monitoring and measuring, and also entrenches the patriarchal norm of housework as women’s work.

Wages-for-housework is not a good idea for India

We have to devise economic models that are tailored to our socio-economic context. We know that care-work has not been accounted for in the neoclassical models, which have been centered around cis-gendered white males. This goes on to show how our current models are not working in the Global South context. 

Mitali does not identify herself as a theoretical economist; she says:

I am very motivated by what is happening on the ground; and, on the ground, what is working for people is not a long-term view of life…trickle-down is not working. International organisations are realising this too. The shift is now towards deliberate and immediate action. Normalising the notion of wages-for-housework, however, is not deliberate action; it is, rather, a deliberate action to perpetuate inequality.

India needs a strong social protection landscape: for example, in the case of the Jan Dhan transfer to women, the “chain” of “transferring the benefit” to women’s accounts for three months is a remarkable move. This is, of course, keeping in mind the limitations of accessibility that persist.

We need to expand digital systems, literacy, and implementation from a ground-level perspective.

In Bengal, there is also a new scheme for Student Credit Cards, and many female students have availed of such schemes. 

Additionally, we cannot say that women will not care for their families. 

The objective of [deliberate action] policy should be to try and uplift the living standards of an impoverished community. Direct cash transfers, improving digital literacy and access to resources and digital assets, education and health loans or credit cards, fortified rice to improve nutritional status, etc., are ways to do this. This needs to be unconditional for it to be an independent source of income too.

Even in terms of how women classify themselves as “working”, a lot of the unpaid work that they undertake is, in fact, classified within the “productive” sphere or as income-generating work. The enumerator is usually not trained enough to understand whether such work is truly an extension of their housework, as women understand it. Thus, we have an under-enumeration of female labour force participation, especially in rural areas. 

Feminist arguments supporting wages-for-housework

On Dr Kotiswaran’s argument on why wages-for-housework, in the form of a state-sponsored grant, should be delivered to a married woman, Mitali says,

I am not disagreeing that there is a need to improve women’s interest-household bargaining power. We definitely see that, in a typical Indian set-up, women lack financial independence… even a failure of marriage in India is seen as a women’s fault. The question, however, is that whether a conditional cash transfer, which links payment to household work, is the correct instrument to improve this bargaining power.

According to research conducted by Nikore Associates based on the time-use data, unmarried women or young girls perform similar amounts of unpaid domestic work as married women. By tying the transfer to married women actually performing household work, we create a situation where she is bound to perform only that work. In such a situation, the in-laws or husband might restrict a woman’s movement as she will be now receiving money for her housework; thus, why would she need to go out for work at all? Clearly, this is not improving a woman’s bargaining power in the household. Wages-for-housework, in this construction, attaches an “opportunity cost” to women integrating and assimilating with society.

An unconditional transfer to any woman, irrespective of their relationship status, in a family unit that falls below a certain income threshold is a much better way to go about this:

Linking to a particular outcome takes the beneficiary’s agency away. If the unconditionality of the transfer is maintained, even if it is a small [transfer], it is material in improving their bargaining power. Even the Goa scheme is unconditional as there is no observation or measurement of what kind of work women are actually doing. The branding associated with paying homemakers ends up appeasing that section of the society that the scheme targets.

Moreover, in the Indian context, a legal precedent has been set on settling a claim, which includes the cost of performing domestic chores. In the recent Kirti and Anr Etc v/s Oriental Insurance Company case, the claimant—Kirti, received an extra amount of Rs 11.20 lacs on account of the deceased homemaker’s domestic work. There are several ways in which courts have calculated such payment for homemaker’s domestic work; in this case, for example, it was based on the opportunity cost of the deceased woman’s notional earnings for minimum wage unskilled work (Uma & Pal, 2021; CSE, 2021). 

Mitali believes that this should not be confused with the government policy of wages-for-housework. She says, 

The income class of the woman in the Kirti case would have never been classified for a government scheme anyway; it is a perverse policy move to pay rich women to stay at home! We should not confound these issues.

Way forward

We need a market for care work. It is a sad reality of our times that a woman, even if educated, is expected to manage household work and outside work. Mitali gives an example of Apnalaya’s community-level model of childcare:

Women from this urban slum community in Mumbai undertake the childcare responsibility. They take a small amount of fee for their service. It essentially works like a creche but is a wonderful model of partnership: the community of [typically working] women manage each other’s children. The monetisation ensures that it is not a worthless task; it is dignified.

Women-specific quotas should especially exist in government jobs and this is definitely a better alternative than wages-for-housework too, as “quotas are a language that everyone understands in India”.

On the final point regarding domestic work and intersectionalities of caste, class, and gender status, Mitali again indicates that we need to start looking at care services as, firstly, services:

In the case of services provided by carpenters or plumbers, we do see a certain kind of formalisation taking place. This is not happening in the case of domestic work, as workers here are not registered as such in the first place! We need to do a [government] drive for these workers to register themselves. This will make them aware of their rights as workers and consequently formalise the sector.

We should not let the costs to engage in paid employment rest solely on the (patriarchal) conception of a mother; here, Mitali briefly touches upon her critique of the amended Maternity Act, which increased the timeline of leave from three to six months. Mitali concludes by saying that we need the law to be ahead and not behind society, such that, upon enforcement, it can encompass the diversity of living in India.

This podcast was conducted by Tanya Rana, a master’s student of public policy at O.P. Jindal Global University. Tanya is the founder of a student-led initiative called the Feminist Economics & Policy Initiative (FEPI) at her university.

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