Actor and politician Kamal Haasan recently announced his political party’s promise of paying women for household chores. His party – Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) – is set to go to the polls in Tamil Nadu in April-May, this year. What is the reasoning behind this proposal? Let us explore.
The aim of offering wages to homemakers, as mentioned in MNM’s seven-point agenda released last month, was to “recognise the value of housework, thus raising the dignity of our womenfolk.”
This concept of paying homemakers and caregivers is not new to the political arena. Thirteen years ago, Sweden introduced a subsidy scheme for domestic chores, and more recently, entrepreneur Andrew Yang ran for the 2020 US Presidential Elections on the back of a similar promise. Throughout his campaign, he reiterated the theme: “Moms do some of the most important and difficult work in our society, but are often treated as adding little to no value by the market.” His solution? A ‘Freedom Dividend’ of $1000 per month for every stay-at-home adult, thereby adding a little extra to families’ pockets.
As for Kamal Haasan’s manifesto, it is currently not clear whether this payment would come out of family income, government funds, or tax subsidies. Those in favour of wages for housework believe that it’s a step towards women empowerment, while others argue that it is a simplistic remedy for a complex problem. Here are some insights from both angles.
It will give women autonomy:
The proposed wage payments would place value on undeclared household tasks that women engage in every day. And let’s face it: they are time-consuming and challenging, just as any other form of work or profession. A monthly wage would not only recognise housework as an occupation but also serve as a testament to the hours women put in, which otherwise remain unaccounted for in the economy.
Moreover, the International Labour Organization states that women devote 3.2 times more to unpaid care work than men. Ground data from Indian households also indicates a gender disparity in how these responsibilities are distributed on a daily basis. Women spend approximately four hours more per day in managing domestic chores than their male counterparts. So, at the heart of this policy prescription lies a clear objective: Pay women a monthly salary, give them some breathing space, and enhance their autonomy.
The concept is quite similar to Universal Basic Income as the extra income would have spillovers, such as improved conditions for domestic work and better standard of living of the recipients. Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor also echoes a similar sentiment. “There are so many things in a homemaker’s life that are beyond price. But this plan is not about those things: it’s about recognising the value of unpaid work and also ensuring a basic income to every woman,” he posted on Twitter.
In India, housework still remains largely female territory, so the move of paying guaranteed sum to women homemakers could empower them and potentially boost the economy. It would also reap intangible benefits, such as sending a signal to society that home and care activities are no less than a husband’s work at the office.
It will deepen existing inequalities:
The critics feel that such a program would further institutionalise patriarchal roles. Going by the primary assertion of the current messaging, women’s responsibilities are within the home and hearth while men should go to do work outside. So, is the term ‘caregiver’ synonymous with women alone?
India’s female labour force participation rate is already low—According to the World Bank, it declined from 31.79% in 2005 to 20.52% in 2019. If the government pays an allowance to women for staying in the homestead, these rates would decrease further and reinforce gender stereotypes. In other words, a guaranteed salary would disincentivise women from entering the world of formal work.
Additionally, a small cash infusion is not the answer for the larger cultural, economic, and political gaps that exist between men and women in the Indian society. It is a quick fix that may help relieve the pain for now, but the scheme would crumble under a microscope in the long run.
Finally, the question remains whether one can put a price tag on a person’s invisible contributions to a household. Who will determine the monetary value of the love and care that goes into their routines? Indian Actress Kangana Ranaut opposed the idea, saying that women don’t need a salary for “loving their partners” or “mothering their children.”
If the MNM party wishes to peg on the disproportionate housework carried out by womenfolk, it must engage with the larger dialogue around patriarchy and gender. There is a pressing need for policy makers to pursue more gender-neutral steps, such as property rights and co-ownership of assets, to truly shape equal family structures.