Explained: How to measure unpaid care work and address its inequalities  

Election promises have sparked a debate on the issue of care work and possible solutions to address the disparities therein.

Unpaid care work, according to the OECD, refers to all unpaid services provided within a household for its members, including care of persons, housework and voluntary community work. (File)

The manifestos for the ongoing Assembly elections have promised various forms of payment to homemakers, thus putting the spotlight on the unpaid domestic work done by women. From a monthly assistance to women family heads in Tamil Nadu to an enhanced Orunodoi scheme in Assam, pension for housewives in Kerala and income support to female heads of households in West Bengal, various proposals for ‘empowerment’ have been put forward by various parties to reach out to women voters. The promises have sparked a debate on the issue of care work and possible solutions to address the disparities therein.

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Housework and the economy

Unpaid care work, according to the OECD, refers to all unpaid services provided within a household for its members, including care of persons, housework and voluntary community work. These activities are considered work because theoretically one could pay a third person to perform them.

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Standard measures of economic activity do not take into account a large portion of this work, much of which is done by women and girls. The gender inequalities in the time allocated to this work are glaring, with McKinsey estimating that women do 75% of the world’s total unpaid care work. In India, women spend 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services while men spend 97 minutes, according to the 2019 NSS report on time use. This inequality has a direct correlation with participation in the formal economy.

Consider the numbers. India has slipped 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021. “Among the drivers of this decline is a decrease in women’s labour force participation rate, which fell from 24.8 per cent to 22.3 per cent,” the report said. It also estimated that earned income of women in India is only one-fifth of men’s, which puts the country among the bottom 10 globally on this indicator, it said.

The economic contribution of women is 17% of India’s GDP — less than half the global average. The Covid-19 pandemic has, by many accounts, exacerbated the situation. By November 2020, while most men got their jobs back, women had a much tougher time. About 49% of total job losses by that time were of women, CMIE has estimated.

Going by the numbers, therefore, women’s economic participation is very poor. However, as the time use survey shows, women spend a disproportionate amount of time (compared to men) on unpaid domestic work, which is ironically the ‘hidden engine’ that keeps economies, businesses and societies running and contributes significantly to individual well-being. While this work is foundational for societies, it is mostly invisible, undervalued and unaccounted worldwide. The ILO estimates that if such services were to be valued on the basis of an hourly minimum wage, they would amount to 9 per cent of global GDP (US$11 trillion).

According to an ILO report on ‘Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work’, unpaid care work is the main barrier preventing women from getting into, remaining and progressing in the labour force. Therefore, policies should address the rising need for care and tackle the huge disparity between women’s and men’s care responsibilities. This is especially true for India, given that a major challenge on the economic front is getting more women into the formal workforce.

Measuring and monetising care work

The efficacy of classic economic indicators like GDP and unemployment rates in measuring living standards and social progress is increasingly being called into question. These indicators also do not take into account the allocation of labour and time resources by households and their impact on livelihoods and well-being. Measuring unpaid care work is thus key to arriving at more inclusive socio-economic indicators, and in formulating policies to address the gender gap.

The value of unpaid work can be estimated by calculating the amount of time spent on it – through time use surveys – and then putting a price on it by calculating the opportunity cost or replacement cost, or by measuring the labour inputs that go into the activity. But this has its own challenges. According to an Oxfam survey, care work is often not considered ‘work’ and done ‘automatically’, hence respondents are less likely to report time spent on care. It is also difficult to capture the whole spectrum of care work as multitasking is common. For example, women might look after children while cooking or engaging in farm work. Variation and seasonality of work is also difficult to capture.

Another issue that arises is accounting for unpaid work in national accounts, and its international harmonisation. The System of National Accounts (SNA) puts unpaid labour in the category of ‘own-account services’, and excludes it from the activities in the production account.

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Wages for housework

In 1972, the International Wages for Housework Campaign was launched in Italy and spread to the UK, while Wages for Housework Committees were formed in various US cities. Selma James, a founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, now coordinates Global Women’s Strike, a movement that seeks recognition for all household work and justice for women’s unacknowledged contribution to the labour force. However, wages for housework is not a central demand in these movements because it is perceived to reinforce gendered division of labour, apart from being difficult to implement.

In India, an application by the National Housewives Association seeking recognition as a trade union in 2010 was rejected by the deputy registrar of trade unions on the ground that housework is not a trade or an industry. In 2012, the then Minister for Women and Child Development Krishna Tirath had said that the government was considering mandating a salary for housework to women from husbands, the aim being to financially empower women. However, the proposal never materialised.

There are instances of cash transfer schemes for women – such as Goa’s Griha Aadhar scheme and Assam’s Orunodoi scheme – but they are positioned as financial support rather than payment for housework.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in a motor accident claim case that household work is no mean feat and fixing notional income for a non-earning “homemaker… is a step towards the constitutional vision of social equality and ensuring dignity of life to all individuals”. In a separate concurring judgment, Justice N V Ramana elaborated on the legal complexities in calculation of notional income of a non-earning homemaker.

Apart from questions of implementation – who pays, in what form, who gets it and how much –payment for housework raises other issues regarding social implications and unintended consequences – whether it would further perpetuate patriarchal and caste inequalities. The issue has political resonance, hence its emergence in pre-election discussions. According to many experts, such a step is a beginning as it recognises glaring inequities, but more needs to be done to address the underlying issues.

The way forward

The first step in addressing the inequalities in unpaid care work is to recognise its value. This requires data, especially on time-use. More data will make more unpaid care work visible and help frame targeted policies and enable better monitoring of the impact of policies and investments. The ‘NSS Report- Time Use in India 2019’ was the first such countrywide survey to be conducted in India.

The next step would be reducing unpaid care work by investment in physical infrastructure like clean water and sanitation, energy and public transport, and in social infrastructure such as care and health services and education. According to an Oxfam report, in households with access to the government’s National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), women spent 22 minutes less per day on average on care work and 60 minutes per day more on paid work. The results for households that had begun using LPG gas cylinders for cooking under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana were similar — 49 minutes less spent on care work and an hour more on paid work.

Finally, redistribution of care work between men and women, and between families and the state will encourage positive social norms and economic development. Investments in and expansion of care services for children and childhood education, for example, have the potential to generate jobs, many of which could be taken up by women. More equitable childcare and maternity policies could help reduce the ‘motherhood penalty’. This approach would help address discriminatory social institutions, encourage awareness and ‘de-feminise’ care work.

The importance of unpaid care work in addressing gender issues is delineated under the Sustainable Development Goal 5, which talks about recognising unpaid domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and promotion of shared responsibility within the household, which will help ensure women’s full and effective participation at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

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