When we wrote a story for women’s day last year we told you how women’s role in the economy gets easily distorted because their unpaid work at home isn’t officially considered while measuring economic growth. So, in today’s Finshots, we thought we’d expand on it a bit and dive into the value of women’s unpaid household chores and whether it calls for monetary compensation.

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The Story

$10.8 trillion.

That is the estimated value of unpaid labour attributable to women around the world. We’re talking about things like household chores, childcare and caring for the elderly.

But if you ask most people about unpaid labour, their responses would probably be “My wife doesn’t work.” Or “It’s just housework.” Or worse, “She’s just doing her duty.”

Unfortunately, housework has long been a task that’s relegated to women. So while women in India spend 297 minutes per day on household work, men spend a mere 31 minutes. The disparity is immense.

Now, the objective of the story is twofold. One, to quantify the compensation women ought to receive for the kind of work they do. Two, figure out how to compensate them.

So let’s address the first question — how do you calculate the value of this unpaid labour?

Well, most people recommend something called a ‘time-use survey’. Basically, you actually ask women about the kind of work they do around the house. And then, calculate how much labour value would have gone into those tasks if they had to hire someone else to do it.

Reasonable enough, right?

But some people argue that when you conduct surveys, you may not get the right answer from most women. They might believe that certain tasks are ones that they simply have to do. That they have no choice. And they may not consider it as work. So they might not report it. For instance, they may ignore the time spent caring for a child. Or tending to the cattle in the house. Even though both are productive work that contributes to the economy.

And if you ask India’s courts, they have their own methods. See, when cases around negligent driving and death go to court, judges have sort of determined what’s an appropriate compensation to be paid out. I’m talking about cases specific to when women homemakers are involved. They take into account the opportunity cost — or what a woman of her education qualifications might have earned in the job market. They consider the minimum wages for labour. And make some adjustments for age and children in the family.

And they’ve awarded compensation that ranges anywhere from ₹5,000 to ₹9,000 a month.

Now, one could argue that this doesn’t seem like much. Or that there are flaws in the calculations. But at least there’s some precedent for calculating such payments.

Then there’s the other question that everyone dreads — who pays for it?

Well, one suggestion is that the government bears this cost.

Hold on…you could say that it seems to be a lot of pressure on government coffers if they have to pay up for this. But what if you were to assume that the government is only sharing the benefits of what it has reaped? As Indira Hirway a professor of economics, wrote in The Hindu earlier:

“Unpaid work also subsidises the government by taking care of the old, sick and the disabled. The state would have spent huge amounts in the absence of unpaid work. Unpaid work is a privately produced public good which is critical for the sustenance of the mainstream economy.”

So you could argue that the state has an obligation to do something about this. In fact, political parties in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal have included “payment to homemakers” in their election manifesto too. We don’t know if it’ll ever come to fruition. But it’s a start.

But if we were being honest, this is still a stretch. These payments would inevitably cripple our finances and not everyone agrees these monetary payments will work.

Some economists think that it will keep women confined to the house even more. If people believe that women are getting paid by the government for housework, why should women bother to work outside? Why should they have a career of their own?

And while the labour force participation rate is only 25% for Indian women, this could fall further as a result.

Also, cash transfers might be a problem because men end up making money decisions at the end of the day. The women do not benefit.

So what’s the way out then, you ask?

Well, some suggestions involve in-kind transfers that will directly have an impact on their lives. And reduce the burden on their daily chores.

For instance, providing cooking gas cylinders to each household reduces the time that women spend collecting firewood and cooking. Or if free child-care centres are available, it reduces the burden of care on mothers. Take Uruguay for instance. When the country introduced the Care Act, it changed everything. It made it a right for children and elderly persons to get care. And the government took up the responsibility to provide these care services. And even ensure their quality.

Other countries have experimented with such unconventional policies too for unpaid labour. For instance, in Belgium, the government doled out vouchers to people who hired an agency to do their housework. It was a subsidy of sorts. Finland, Sweden, and Denmark have chosen to give tax breaks in similar cases. And it seems to have helped in Sweden because people who opted for these subsidies grew further in their careers. They even earned $2000 more annually.

Or maybe in societies like India where patriarchy is so deeply entrenched, we need ways to get men also involved in sharing housework. By giving them mandatory training and financial incentives for sharing housework. Or maybe even just formalising things like a mandatory paternal leave. So that men realize that they’re expected to help in child rearing too.

Anyway, we don’t know the right answer. But we’re glad that people are talking about unpaid labour and ways to deal with it. Because as Prabha Kotiswaran, a professor of law and justice at King’s College London, says, “At the current rate of change — the average gender gap between the time men and women spent on unpaid work in 72 countries reduced by seven minutes between 1997 and 2012 — it would take 210 years for housework to be shared equally.”

We don’t want to wait for over 2 centuries for the miracle to happen, no?

Until then…Happy Women’s Day!

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PS: The Malayalam movie The Great Indian Kitchen perfectly encapsulates the expectations that all Indian families place on women to do household work.

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