Hidden Figures: Should Homemakers Be Paid a Salary?

Kahini Iyer
·6-min read

After spending the past ten months working from home, I can’t deny that it’s a lifestyle that comes with certain perks. The divide between our office and home lives has blurred to the point where the idea of going back to a regular five-day-week schedule seems archaic, not to mention terribly inconvenient. Who wants to deal with sitting in traffic or on crowded public transport again, wearing proper clothes instead of pajamas, and wasting hours in meetings without even being able to surreptitiously watch 30 Rock in the background? For me, a single working woman, work from home has involved enjoying hot home-cooked lunches and sleeping in for the extra hour I would normally spend on my commute.

For working mothers and housewives, however, it’s a different story. My leisurely lockdown existence is enabled by my own mother, a housewife who ensures that the aforementioned lunches are always ready, and who uses her morning hours not to laze in bed, but to prepare breakfast, tend to my elderly grandparents, and do the grocery shopping. Like me, my mother is a writer who had a flourishing career in advertising; she was earning more than my father when they married. But on starting a family, she, like most working moms, had to rearrange her priorities to put her kids first. Today in lockdown, she is still the reason that I have the luxury to focus on my work without worrying about disinfecting every package that gets delivered to the house or stocking up on groceries.

The lockdown has placed many Indian housewives in the unenviable position of having to cater to their family day in and day out, without the respite of seeing them off to school, college, or workplaces. On top of their usual work, they must supervise children who are virtually learning and long fed up with being stuck indoors. Chores that might once have been outsourced to dhobis, sabziwalas, maalis, and domestic helpers now fall to the housewife whose ecosystem has been disrupted by COVID-19. She is usually the one who must deal with everything from strained household finances to her daughter’s favourite biscuits being out of stock at the local kirana, all in a day’s work — which is to say nothing of her actual day’s work if she holds a job too.

Of course, the lockdown has only added to the burdens of Indian homemakers, which have long been a subject of discussion. Even in educated households, patriarchal mindsets persist as men tend to take little responsibility for chores and childcare. During the lockdown, when some husbands were exposed to the effort that goes into running a household for the first time, male contribution to domestic labour went up on average by an hour – or about a quarter of the time the average woman, regardless of whether she is working outside the home or not, puts in. Little wonder, then, that Tamil regional party Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) president Kamal Haasan proposed recognising homemakers as a salaried class in December.

Even in educated households, patriarchal mindsets persist as men tend to take little responsibility for chores and childcare.

Thanks to a Supreme Court statement made on Tuesday, the national discourse on the issue of homemakers has once again come to the fore. The SC was hearing the case of a couple who were killed in a motor accident, where the relatives believed they were given less monetary compensation due to the woman’s status as a housewife. Justice Raman affirmed their views, saying, “Women cook, buy rations, clean the house, take care of the furnishings, maintenance, and take care of children and elders. Despite all this, the thinking that homemakers do not work and do not provide financial help is wrong. It is time to get out of this thinking that has been going on for years.” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor took the opportunity to agree with Haasan’s idea of providing a salary to housewives on Twitter.

Naturally, no social media discussion is complete without the opinion of actor Kangana Ranaut, who derided the prospect of a salary for homemakers as “partially painful and partially funny.” Ranaut insisted that there was no price one could put on the sacrifice and lifelong commitment of mothers and wives. “Don’t put a price tag on sex we have with our love, don’t pay us for mothering our own, we don’t need salary for being the Queens of our own kingdom,” she said.

It’s worth noting that Ranaut is a successful and wealthy career woman who faces none of the restrictions that the typical housewife does, prompting Tharoor to respond with a wish that all Indian women are as empowered as her. The language Ranaut uses to glorify the condition of the homemaker is not so different from the statements made in the SC, or by politicians who laud them as personifications of our Bharat Mata. But the conclusions drawn by each are miles apart.

Based on what women have been facing for decades, including dropping out of the workforce under the weight of maintaining their households and families, praising them as queens of their realms is clearly not enough. And this number has only risen during the pandemic. According to research at the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University, work participation rate for women – a measure of the proportion of adults who work – fell from an already low 9.15% in December 2019 to just 5.8% in August 2020.

Based on what women have been facing for decades, praising them as queens of their realms is clearly not enough.

There is a strong case for housewives being compensated for their work, to empower them and make them financially independent. The question, however, remains about who would pay? In 2012, the then Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tripathi had proposed that men should compensate their spouse for the chores done. But that again puts the onus on the women and makes the man the “owner”. The other option as Tharoor references in his tweet would be to create something close to a Universal Basic Income apart from acknowledging their overlooked contributions.

Perhaps in the times when we were still schlepping to office every day, these would have seemed like pie-in-the-sky policies. But after a crisis year where we have seen the economy tumble and jobs vanish even for the middle-class, where we’ve been forced to do some of the hard work of running a house, formerly radical ideas start to sound like common sense. COVID-19 has helped us recognise the true value of housewives’ domestic labour that has kept us going when the whole world ground to a halt. It’s heartening that the SC along with politicians like Haasan and Tharoor are finally showing appreciation for homemakers not just for being selfless wives and mothers, but for their unsung economic power.

Maybe it’s time to go beyond platitudes, maybe it’s time to pay salaries for housework.