The Housewife’s on the Payroll

Bangalore (Women’s Feature Service) – When Miss Venezuela, Dayana Mendoza, won the Miss Universe beauty pageant this year, every newspaper around the world splashed her beautiful face across their front page. But when Venezuela recently began making payments for women’s housework under a landmark law, the media passed it up as “not newsworthy, not important enough”. And yet, wages for housework has been one of the most contentious and hotly debated gender issues around the world for at least three decades, ever since it was mooted during the 1970s, soon after feminism gathered legitimacy as a global movement.

Under conventional economics, work that is not paid for does not count as “productive labour”. If the boss marries his secretary, a popular joke in economics goes, the GDP (gross domestic product) goes down, because even if the woman continues to do the same secretarial work as before, she does not get paid for it and so her inputs no longer count as “work”. Census exercises around the world take note only of paid labour categories and not housework done by housewives even if the country’s production processes grind to a halt if women withdrew their services as homemakers, cooks, cleaners, child minders, and care providers for the elderly and the sick. Stay-at-home moms are considered to be “doing nothing” (meaning ‘not going out to work at a paid job’).

Unfortunately, women themselves contribute to this view by saying that they “don’t work” or “do nothing” if they do not go out to work. “I’m just a housewife,” is a common deprecatory utterance by women who may be doing a 20-hour daily stint, looking after the children, cooking for the family, doing the grocery shopping in addition to a thousand other sundry chores. The truth is that the community would not be able to work and “produce” if women withdrew their contribution as housewives. Women’s unpaid work, estimated to be worth several trillion dollars, does not get reflected in conventional GDP calculations.

If women had to be compensated for this work in terms of money, the argument runs, their worth, to the family and to the community, would be better appreciated, and that would help fight conventional perceptions of women as “dependents” and promote gender equity.

Last year, the Venezuelan government began paying stay-at-home housewives, recognising their work at the home as valuable economic activity. President Hugo Chavez announced that in the first phase, under Article 88 of the Constitution, which began in February last year, 100,000 poor women head of households would receive 80 per cent of the legal minimum wage (amounting to approximately $ 180 per month) with another 100,000 covered in the second phase four months later.

Though the amount is modest, the initiative has been greeted with approval by feminists – and with some reservations. As leading feminist scholars like Marianne Ferber, Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Professor Lourdes Beneria of Cornell University, USA, have pointed out, such a move, while undoubtedly benefiting indigent women, may not contribute to building gender equality in the long run.

Ferber and Beneria are both senior members of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE), which has a worldwide membership in over 50 countries. “Payment for housework could entrench women in their traditional gender roles and may prevent them from acquiring labour market skills,” says Beneria. Ferber concurs, while agreeing that even 80 per cent of the minimum wage could make a difference to the lives of poor women, who cannot go out to work because they have to take care of the family and small children.

Women worldwide have faced the dilemma of having to choose between paid employment and the needs of their families, especially if the children are very young. For them, payment for housework could ease some of the contrary pulls of home and earnings from work outside, particularly in families where money is tight. Millions of single mothers are torn between the urge to care for their infants and the need to earn to feed them. For them, payment for housework would be a boon.

But can one go merely by computations of opportunity costs, to ‘compensate’ housewives for being ‘stay-at-home’ mothers? Also, how does one address the complex issue of computing opportunity costs, given the variety of paid work that women could choose from? What about women who seek work not for the money but for the professional enrichment, satisfaction or advancement that their paid work at some profession outside the home brings?

Would a law legalising payment for housewives result in “ghetto-ising” women as homemakers, and chip away at the kind of equity that feminists believe in, where both men and women are seen as “individuals” with equal rights? There are also women at the other end of the spectrum of feminist perspectives, who believe that they have a right to choose to be homemakers if that is what they want, and that payment for staying at home could “devalue” the importance of women’s role as homemakers.

But what of those women for whom staying at home is not an option due to paucity of money with which to feed the children – women heads of households, deserted or battered women with children, women whose husbands are incapacitated by illness and can’t earn? Economics, then, is at the bottom of the pros and cons of paying for housework.

So, is the Venezuelan initiative good for gender equity, or bad? The jury is still out on that one. Curiously enough, it is Venezuela with its thriving “beauty queen producing industry” that turns out the largest number of winners at international beauty pageants, which has also pioneered this initiative for paying women for their contribution as housewives.

In May 2008, the University of Warwick, UK, hosted an international conference to explore the role of waged domestic work in modern social formations, and in the last week of July, the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) debated the issue at Costa Rica. Should housewives be paid for the work they contribute to the running of the household and the nation? In a milieu where only paid work is seen and exalted as “work”, paying for housework could help lift such work to a place of legitimacy as “work” but at the same time, it could also mean that women get compartmentalised in the roles of homemakers. Which is not quite what gender equity is construed as.