No, Kamal Haasan. Pay for Household Work Won't Help Indian Women. These Policy Prescriptions Would

Mitali Nikore
·6-min read

When actor-politician Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) released a seven-point manifesto for Reimagining Tamil Nadu in the run-up to the 2021 elections, a glass ceiling was broken. They proposed that homemakers should get due recognition through payment for their work at home which hitherto has been unrecognized and unmonetized, thus raising the dignity of womenfolk.” The Supreme Court also recently directed an insurance firm to estimate the value of homemakers’ notional income.

To see mainstream politicians and judges recognize the burden of women’s disproportionate domestic work, and make it an election issue is heartening especially because Indian women spend up to 10X the time on unpaid domestic work as men, vis-à-vis the global average of 3.2X. However, this policy may result in unintentional impacts and run into implementation challenges.

Firstly, compensating only women for domestic work would reinforce gender stereotypes, and may also deter women from taking employment outside the home. Second, enumerating, quantifying, and then monetizing the colossal breadth of household activities performed by women ranging from cleaning, cooking, child/elderly care and more would be complex and resource-intensive.

National income estimates benchmarked to market rates charged by domestic workers/at-home carers may not account for the higher level of strategic thinking, budgeting and emotional labour involved in running a home. For instance, a person running his/her household doesn’t only cook. That person also plans the menu, decides what vegetables to buy, and how much money to spend on groceries. Therefore, that individual’s efforts cannot be valued by the standardized market rate.

Thirdly, verifying the hours of unpaid work undertaken within the household will be difficult, for both the homemaker and the government. This policy may lead to exclusion and inclusion errors, as it may exclude women who are not full-time homemakers in low-income groups but include homemakers from higher-income groups (refer Figure 1 below). Not only could this prove to be unaffordable, but also an inefficient use of government’s scarce resources. Finally, given women’s limited control over household resources, it could prove difficult to ensure that they derive benefits from this compensation; only 38% of women-owned a house/land, 53% used a bank account and 46% had a mobile phone for self-use in 2015-16 (NFHS-4).

Of course, there is obviously no denying the fact that Indian women do the bulk of unpaid domestic work. There are several anecdotal and data-based evidence which corroborate this fact.

On any given day, 92% of women in the 15-59 years “working ages” participate in unpaid domestic activities, vs. only 29% of men. Only 23% of women participate in employment vs. 70% of men. (NSSO Time Use Survey, 2019). Moreover, data from successive Periodic Labour Force Surveys show that the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) declined to its lowest level since Independence in 2017-18, and remains one of the lowest globally. Cross-country evidence confirms that a decrease in women’s care work by two hours can increase the FLFPR by 10 percentage points (OECD, 2014).

Even as women were losing paid employment opportunities during COVID-induced lockdowns, the demand for unpaid care work continued to escalate. Between December 2019 and December 2020, the size of the labour force shrunk by 14% for women vs 1% for men. (CMIE). Homemakers looking for employment declined between March and September 2020, from 6.4 million to 2.5 million, recovering to 4.4 million in December 2020 (CMIE). This coincided with women’s care work increasing by almost 30% as school closures continued and families remained at home (Dalberg, 2020). An April 2020 survey of informal women workers found 66% indicated increases in unpaid domestic work and 36% experienced increases in child/elderly care work during the lockdown’s first two months (Chakraborty, 2020). Even in the organized sector, 43% of urban female solopreneurs reported a loss of productivity due to domestic work during the pandemic (Bain, 2020). For women from the corporate sector, while working from home allowed greater flexibility, the lack of a regular schedule, unpredictable work demands and increased care work resulted in longer hours. Discussions with self-help group community mobilizers in semi-urban areas revealed that women were withdrawing from work owing to household responsibilities (Nikore Associates primary research).

The unpaid care work economy is valued at nearly 9% of the global GDP, with 3/4th of domestic work performed by women (ILO, 2018). Despite calls for modifications, traditional GDP accounting measures ignore unpaid work. In this context, attaching a financial value to household work improves the estimation of women’s economic contributions, and gives them worker status. Direct cash transfers (based on such notional income estimates) can improve women’s agency, intra-household bargaining position and Financial Independence.

Fig. 1: Female Workforce Participation Rates by expenditure category across India in the year 2018-19.

Having recognized the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women’s employment and financial condition, as well as the burden of unpaid work on households, Governments can evaluate a series of complementary measures to deal with these challenges:

  1. Unconditional cash transfers for women. Rather than linking to the quantum of household work, governments can provide unconditional, fixed amount of cash transfers to low-income women as income support.

  2. Investing in care work services. Governments can increase budgetary support for affordable child-care centres, and elderly and disability care facilities, especially in partnership with non-governmental organizations for broader and more efficient service delivery. Women can be recruited for a majority of job created under such programs.

  3. Subsidized family care leave. Governments can start a subsidized family care leave policy for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), subsidizing maternity, paternity and other family care leave required by MSME employees, especially for low-wage workers. Similar policies can also be formulated for informal and gig workers.

  4. Influencing social attitudes. Domestic work should be recognized as a “shared responsibility” to bridge existing gaps. Social norms casting women in the role of homemaker discourage men from taking responsibility in the home. Male actors, politicians, sportspersons and other role models should promote equal participation in housework through mass media campaigns and innovative messaging through social media.

It is refreshing to see male leaders recognize the nation-building value of women’s unpaid domestic work and display the political will to mainstream targeted financial support for women. However, it may be ill-advised to solve social problems through economic measures. Indian men need to become equal partners in sharing the load of unpaid work so that India’s women can join the paid workforce and build an independent identity outside the confines of their homes.

Mitali Nikore is the Founder of Nikore Associates, a youth-led economics research and policy think tank. She is a feminist economist who advises several public and private sector entities, focusing on infrastructure development and gender issues. Anushka Bansal and Chandni Ganesh have contributed to this piece.