Homemaker’s worth : Unpaid, unseen & unrecognized

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
18 Jan 2021

Picture this. A kuchha house with three rooms, an open kitchen with mud-smeared chulha (stove), three kids playing in the verandah and a man sitting on the cot smoking hukkah. Just opposite the verandah, two buffaloes are tied at a place, eagerly waiting for their food. An old man is coughing constantly and is lying on another cot. 

A middle-aged woman, sweating profusely enters the house with a huge pile of wood and straw on her head. Tired, she throws the pile on the floor. Even before she could relax a bit, she starts mixing the straw with grass to serve the animals. Quickly she draws a bucket of water from the nearby handpump, puts it before the animals to drink. Before the animals start eating, the lady starts extracting milk. Once she is done with the animals, she enters the kitchen for making a cup of tea for herself. 

Her husband, the man smoking hukkah, shouts and asks her to cook food immediately. Her desire to sip some tea goes down the drain and she starts chopping vegetables. The kids too enter the kitchen wanting food. The old man starts coughing constantly and wants medicine. She rushes out to help him. 

The smoke from the stove triggers her cough while cooking but who cares. By the time, she serves food it gets dark. The kids and her husband fall asleep but the woman still has a lot to do. She washes utensils, looks after the animals, ensure they have sufficient hay and water. With whatever energy she has, she pushes the animals inside the small room before she sleeps.

The next morning, she gets up early, bathes the animals, extracts milk, cooks food, serves the family, looks after the old man, cleans the house and goes to the field for tending the crops. All this while, did you see the man doing anything? Yes, the man went out to work. But it sounds so irrelevant in this scenario. Some may say, the scene showed only the house. Perhaps the man would be juggling in his office in the same manner as the woman in the house. Well, that might be true. But for how many hours? Six or eight hours a day? Had the woman not taken care of the house; would he be able to work? 

We could see the woman taking charge of the entire house. Did you see the woman having food? Of course, she ate. But that is immaterial for many women. Her desire to have tea had no value. Nor could she express it. She is dependent on her husband and has no purchasing power. Hence no say in the house.

This is exactly what happens most of the time in rural India. In fact, the scene might be horrifying with the woman being subjected to domestic violence, in case she does not adhere to the man’s demands. The picture might be a little different in the cities or urban areas. The woman may not be seen with the animals or in the fields but her work is no less. For a working woman, it is all-the-more difficult to manage both work and house. 

The recent lockdown imposed due to the spread of Covid-19 had affected their lives. Work from home became the new norm. They played the role of a homemaker and a working woman at the same time. Imagine the boss shouting at her as she could not complete the assignment in time. Why? She was busy cooking food as the husband has no respect for what she does in her professional life. Many workplaces are still following work from home.

This is not the end of their plight. At work, they face numerous problems ranging from low salaries, sexual harassment, lesser growth opportunities etc. This might be one of reasons why female workforce participation rate is only 25.7 per cent compared to 51.9 per cent for males. On an average, Indian woman spends about 3401 days of her life, roughly 9 years, in kitchen, irrespective of the fact that she is a housewife or a working woman. Keeping average life span of 50 years, it means she spends around 17 per cent of her life in kitchen. It comes to an average four hours in a day. This work is not counted anywhere. Nor does it get acknowledged even by the family members. A report published by National Statistical organization titled “Time use 2019” shows that a woman spends 299 minutes a day on unpaid work compared to 97 minutes spent by men. 

For centuries together, the work done by the housewives has never been valued. Because it does not have a monetary value attached to it. It is assumed that it does not contribute to the growth of a country as it does not help in rotation of money. 

On the contrary, if the same work is done by a cook in a restaurant or a chef in a five-star or a seven-star hotel, or by a dry-cleaner or a professional cleaner in an office, or an ayah or a nurse, it forms an important part of the economic activity. If these professional service providers are included in calculation of gross domestic product then why not homemakers? The answer is simple – because they are not paid for their work. In fact, it comes free with marriage. That is the rule of society or the institutions that form this society.

It is also a fact that a homemaker creates surplus value through her labour. Take for instance, if the woman above is replaced by a professional service provider, the real value of money earned by the man will go down drastically. He would have to spend money to avail of the services which his wife was providing free of cost. Then why not value them and give the housemaker equal respect as he expects from his wife. After all money saved is money earned. 

Recently, in Kirti & Anr. Etc. vs Oriental Insurance company ltd, the Supreme Court took note of the “unpaid work done by the homemakers. The court held that fixing notional income for unpaid work done by women is “recognition of the multitude of women who are engaged in this activity, whether by choice or as a result of social/cultural norms”. 
Although, the ruling came when the court was deciding upon the compensation to be paid to legal heirs of a homemaker, who died in an accident, it has far reaching ramifications. Especially at a time, when workforce participation of women has been declining consistently over the last few years.

In a similar case last year, the court also objected to listing of a homemaker as “non-workers” in Census 2011. Ironically, they have been treated at par with “beggars, prostitutes and prisoners”. The court held that “this approach portrays a totally insensitive and callous attitude towards dignity of labour and also strongly suggests a bias against women”. 

Not only this, the census 2011 states that "an adult woman engaged in household duties but not doing any productive work to augment the family resources was considered a non-worker." However, it goes on to say, "A political worker who was actively engaged in furthering the political activity of his part was regarded as a 'worker'! The court directed the government to rectify this definition during the current census and also asked the government to devise a mechanism for incorporating the contribution of home-makers while calculating GDP.

While the decision has been hailed by many feminist organisations and even political leaders, it triggered a debate on the micro-blogging site Twitter. A Bollywood actress strongly opposed the idea of putting a monetary value to the work done by the homemakers. In the Indian context, it is certainly a debatable issue. It may undermine the institution called family and the relationship between a husband and a wife considering the social set-up of the country. At the same time, it is not justifiable to exclude the value of such work while calculating the Gross domestic product of the country. Now many would ask how do you calculate the contribution? 

Many economists have proposed various methods to do it. The government can choose the one that fits in the Indian context. Although major economies like the US and China do not include homemakers’ contribution in the GDP, some Latin American countries do so. Simply put, the government can certainly refer to such countries as case studies.

It is estimated that “unpaid work” if included in GDP calculation will increase it by 2 to 3 per cent. Now many would say, it is a mere figure, how will it impact the economy. The fact is it is already helping the economy to grow. It is high time that we recognize this contribution. It will be a step forward in creating a just and equitable society. The apex court has done its part, now the government has to take a call. 

(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com)

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