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Wages for housework: A step towards equality at first glance, a step away at second?

Feminist Perspectives
Yanitra Kumaraguru

Lecturer in law at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo

19 April 2022

Social perceptions of the gendered role of women in relation to housework is one of several factors that have entrenched global gender inequality for decades. The traditional housework paradigm has played an oppressive role, through the perpetuation of stereotypes and refusal to acknowledge value.

Deeply embedded social norms equate both propensity and responsibility for housework as a necessary corollary of female identity. Social perceptions have also consistently failed to value housework, both in terms of its contribution to the family and to the larger economy, despite the contribution made by women in the form of unpaid care and domestic work being estimated at as much as nine percent of the global GDP in recent years. The combination of these factors spills over to further polarize the already unequal employment platform.

The call for wages for housework demands recognition of the tremendous contribution housewives and other female members of a household make to the economy; otherwise consistently ignored. The resulting visibility and acknowledgment of labour, it is argued, will enable the struggle against oppression and the refusal of chores, allowing for the restructuring of social relations. Prima facie, and in the abstract, the demand for wages appears to be a step towards sex equality. However, does the appeal of the demand withstand the potential contradictions it could create?

Wages for housework first begs further detail in terms of who is to finance these wages? Attributing this responsibility to the husband or stereotypically male head of household is not possible without further entrenching female subservience within the family unit; attaching an employer-servant connotation to the familial or marital relationship and adding an element of financial answerability to the already tilted expectations from female family members. Attributing responsibility to the State, in contrast, seems more appropriate. Yet, there remains the question of how these wages are to be computed.

At least two concerns arise. First, how are we to prevent arbitrary and stereotypical judgment when drawing the distinction between what constitutes work and leisure within the gendered domestic activities in which women engaged at home and particularly with their children? The computation does not take place in a vacuum, but in an environment charged with bias. To the eyes of someone clouded by social stereotype there is real danger of the distinction blurring; and where blurred, is it not more convenient to the male dominant society to err on the sides of stereotypically attributed notions of female ‘leisure’ and ‘love’ than true labour deserving of wages? Second, on what basis are wages for household activities, so deemed to be work, to be determined? Must one calculate wages for activities undertaken within the household on the basis of the wages paid for these same forms of work when undertaken as waged work within the market? To do so, unfortunately, is to incorporate within the family a calculation of wages that are already lesser earning than corresponding male dominant jobs in the labour market. The traditional classification of productive and reproductive work may also lend itself to be absorbed into making a discrepancy of financial value attaching to housework seem less arbitrary.

The wages for housework demand, even if successful at navigating the above concerns, will only prove successful at securing capitalistic connotations of value for the work done by female members of household. It does not succeed at, or even sufficiently attempt, combatting questions of identity and stereotype that are inextricably linked to women and housework. There is a real risk, then, that in battle for economic recognition for household chores, the boundaries of women’s role within the economy may be compromised. Apart from the obvious inequality this perpetuates, further circumscribing the role of a woman to housework would also mean the exclusion of women from decision making authorities in both the State and private sphere. This exclusion and segregation to ‘house’ based labour permits the present unequal structure of social relations to continue unhindered despite the recognition of wages for household chores. In fact, paying wages for housework within a structure that segregates and disadvantages women may instead contribute to entrenching the status quo or even regressing from the little distance travelled towards equal pay.

Finally, what value does the wages for housework demand hold for an individual woman in society? The campaign asks for recognition of the immense contribution made by women to the economy by keeping house, caring for her husband, raising her children, and thus sustaining the labour force or potential labour force of a nation. The derivate value of her services, by virtue of upholding the actors of the economy, is clearly encapsulated. However, what of a single woman, living alone? Are her household chores of zero value given that they sustain only herself and neither facilitate or raise a member of the traditional labour force? Are we to admit that the value of a woman to the economy is limited to her services towards a male member of society who, unlike her, is more capable of contributing directly to the economy?

The inequalities that gave rise to the demand for wages for housework are undeniable. In isolation the push for wages for housework holds out hope in its potential as a lynchpin for revolution towards equality. Taken in its entire context however, that hope dwindles and gives place instead to fear of entrenchment of stereotype, inequality, and regression. The pervasive inequality of sexes is not one that can be overcome through attachment of wages to household chores. Instead, the core for its alteration must be found through the battle in overcoming social stereotypes, achieving equal pay, avoiding sex based segregation in the job market and the sharing of responsibilities of housework and childcare. Access to education, consciousness raising, vocational training beyond the present segregation of the job market, formalizing vulnerable jobs such as domestic work, and institutional support such as improving shared parental as opposed to solely maternity leave, are paramount in this regard.

About Yanitra Kumaraguru

Yanitra Kumaraguru is a lecturer in law at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo. She holds a Bachelors in Law from the University of Colombo and a Masters in Law from Harvard University and is an Attorney at Law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Her areas of research include gender, humanitarian law, technology and human rights as well as disarmament

Twitter: @yanitra_k


Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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