Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Should women get paid for housework?

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Countries have put the idea of waged domesticity into varying levels of practice.Photo / Thinkstock
Countries have put the idea of waged domesticity into varying levels of practice.Photo / Thinkstock

India's Women and Child Development Ministry is mulling over a draft bill that would make it compulsory for husbands to give their homemaker wives a monthly wage. If passed, the bill would order husbands to pay 10 to 20 per cent of their salary into a bank account in their wife's name, with the official job title 'home engineer'.

Part of an official move in India towards enhanced women's empowerment, legal compensation would give homemakers some financial independence and formally recognise their role in society at large. But it's got its critics, who say the policy would be nearly impossible to implement, tricky tax-wise, and effectively reduce housewives to the role of paid servants. The questions raised by the draft bill are, of course, endless: can you really quantify the care and time a wife and mother contributes? If a husband does some chores, is there a wage deduction? What are the working hours? And, isn't it all a bit patronising?

A linchpin of feminism since the 70s, some countries have put the idea of waged domesticity into varying levels of practice. Venezuela, for instance, where financially needy homemakers have been eligible for 80 per cent of the minimum wage since 2006. According to President Hugo Chávez, homemakers' economic contributions to the country should be recognised: "These women [do] so much work ironing, washing, making food, cleaning and raising their kids ... With this mission, we want to give a hand to mothers who are in need, and homemakers without a fixed income."

A recent report by the Bellagio Initiative, a collaborative project from experts from over 30 countries, recommended "giving greater formal recognition to care work", including domestic care. The research, titled Human Wellbeing in the 21st Century, concluded that such work "receives lip-service but has no real universal policy traction. This work, often undertaken by women, is systematically undervalued and overlooked in the current development agenda."

Countless studies undertaken globally show women everywhere do more than their fair share of household chores, and domestic 'duties' account for an enormous chunk of the world's collective unpaid labour.

In developing nations with traditional frameworks, the disparity is especially glaring: an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study that looked at 26 OECD member countries - plus the emerging economies of India, China and South Africa - found women spend four-and-a-half hours a day on unpaid work, compared to men's two-and-a-half hours.

The study also found Turkish, Mexican and Indian women spend almost five hours more a day on unpaid work than men, with India claiming one of the largest gender gulfs; its male population spends less than an hour a day on housework.

Of course, more men in these countries work in paid markets during the day. But 'paid' is the operative word - as pointed out by Indian writer Rupa Subramanyae, economists have long argued that a lack of recognition of unpaid domestic labour can distort our perception of a country's economic landscape.

"It's not just feminists or left-wing economists making this case," she says, "but also mainstream economists such as Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, Amartya Sen of Harvard University and Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, all of whom are Nobel laureates. Is it time to consider housework an essential part of economic activity?"

(Note to househusbands: I use the term 'housewife' because there are more of them than there are of you. But I know you're out there.)

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