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How to Curtail Double Burden that Keeps Women out of Paid Work

The authors propose a project to increase the long-term employment of women that decisively breaks from neoliberalism.
women workers paid.

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Like other countries where the neo-liberal project is ascending, India is witnessing a rise in unemployment and a falling labour force participation of women. Proponents of the neo-liberal project claim that women’s labour force participation falls in periods of rising family incomes. The question, however, remains that even if family incomes were rising (though the evidence is contrary in India), why should it be female labour force participation that gets adversely affected and not the male labour force participation?

Women tend to be disproportionately represented in jobs where work arrangements are precarious (no written labour contracts, for instance). Further, sectors in which women are concentrated are also those (we may bring them together under the rubric of petty production) which tend to be relatively more impacted by “shocks”. Besides, women tend to be disproportionately disengaged from sectors where there is rapid labour displacing technical change (especially during the ascendancy of the neo-liberal project). As a result, capital engenders a set-up where women workers tend to be a relative surplus component of the labour force that ebbs and flows mainly depending on the demand for and supply of male workers.

A critical underlying determinant of the female labour participation rate is the disproportionate burden of domestic work that “devolves” on women. Often women find it objectively unviable to tackle both paid and domestic work. First, women cannot expend the time required for paid and domestic work sustainably. Second, some types of domestic work, such as child care and elder care, may be needed at times that conflict with the requirements employers enforce in the labour process. Third, it is logically impossible for all women capable of expending work for pay to employ someone else to perform domestic work their families need. Fourth, the wages of most women who undertake paid work are too low for them to hire someone else to undertake domestic work. The previously mentioned four factors are both causes and consequences of women’s limited decision-making roles within families.

A key factor linking domestic work and labour force participation, which we will be unable to deal with in much detail in this article, is that not all families are organised in ways that conform to heteronormativity. All members of such families, especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual/aromantic/agender, are oppressed in communities and workplaces in complex ways. But this is a subject of later study.

Domestic work refers to work undertaken by the household members for social reproduction. In rich or some middle-class families, a greater or lesser part of domestic work is undertaken by paid employees or domestic workers. Social reproduction activities include childbearing, child care, elder care, care of other family members, cooking, washing, cleaning, purchase of commodities required by the family to meet household consumption needs, etc. Some (usually female) family members may need to supervise paid domestic employees in wealthy and middle-class families.

None of the tasks of social reproduction is gender specific other than childbearing. However, the intimate two-way link between gender (and other types of) oppression and class exploitation has meant that women have been disproportionately burdened with domestic work. This disproportionate burden is one of the reasons that female labour participation is low. Further, family resources are unlikely to be directed proportionately towards the development of the abilities of women since many such women will be mainly confined to unpaid domestic work.

It has been argued that female labour participation could be increased if domestic work is proportionately shared between men and women. Though there is some merit in this argument, in a demand-constrained economy, an increase in labour supply without a concomitant increase in labour demand will (through a decrease in the bargaining power of workers) result in a fall in the real wage rate. A policy that will simultaneously result in higher demand for labour and a higher female labour force participation is required to deal with this problem.

The link between the disproportionate burden of domestic work being borne by women--leading to falling female labour participation--requires a corrective employment guarantee programme. It can harness the synergies between an employment programme and the socialisation of domestic work to deal with the twin crises of unemployment/underemployment and falling female labour participation. These synergies can be harnessed in multiple ways, including learning from the Kudumbashree programme in Kerala.

The employment guarantee programme could work along the following lines:

First, childcare, principally undertaken by women, can partly be undertaken in public childcare centres (drawing on the potential of anganwadis), geographically proximate to workplaces or homes of family members. These centres can engage unemployed workers at a living wage.

Second, elder care is also disproportionately undertaken by women. Where they are unavailable for such work, elders endure varying degrees of destitution. We propose engaging non-disabled willing senior citizens in public child/elder care centres for a living wage. Senior citizens who require care could be assisted in their homes by companions or housed in public senior citizen care centres and cared for by personnel (after the necessary training). The personnel engaged in elder care could again be a part of the employment guarantee programme for a living wage. Such care support measures will increase the possibility of female labour participation in other activities. Universal paid child care leave to employed workers in the private sector financed by a cross-subsidy, we argued earlier, could supplement public child care centres that we are proposing here.

Third, the number of meals provided to school children could be increased and taken care of publicly by schools or social kitchens. Likewise, public eateries providing nutritious (“home-like”) meals at reasonable prices could be set up across communities and workplaces along the lines of Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu. These measures will enhance the nutritional status in the country, especially among children and the elderly and increase female labour participation. The time required for cooking in homes will decline and therefore enhance employment.

India could reduce the burden of domestic work by setting up public laundrettes (for washing and ironing clothes), public dish-washing centres and providing public household cleaning and repair/maintenance services near households. These public laundrettes and dish-washing centres will enable ecologically sustainable practices in sanitation.

Fifth, home delivery of consumer goods through an expanded public distribution system will reduce the time required for domestic work, which is again disproportionately undertaken by women. Besides making women available for the labour force, it will create much-needed paid employment.

These synergies between an employment guarantee and socialisation of domestic work will result in higher female labour force participation, enhanced employment, streamlining of care work and social security for children, senior citizens, and the youth. These five elements, however, do not exhaust the potential to synergise employment guarantees and socialisation of domestic work.

If the magnitude of employment under these five activities increases, the expenditure from wages and purchasing non-labour inputs for them will also increase: the demand-pull channel, output, employment, and investment in a demand-constrained economy. Unburdening a significant fraction of women from domestic work and making them available for paid work can meet the rise in labour demand (along with the unemployed male workers). Further, paying a living wage to workers engaged in the employment guarantee will increase floor (and therefore average) wage levels in the whole economy.

If (large) private firms seek to increase prices to preserve their profit margins as wages rise, it could be counteracted in two ways. One, through price controls on the monopoly power of large private firms. Second is the expansion of the ambit of activities covered by an employment guarantee. This step would restrain the monopoly power of private firms through appropriate pricing policies for public sellers of such commodities in these sectors.

In effect, the policy we advocate would redistribute income from profits to wages, providing an additional boost to demand, output, employment, and investment. This is because workers tend to spend a greater fraction of their income compared with firm owners. Such a policy would be at least partly “self-financing” since the resultant increase in output will also increase tax revenue. The residual expenditure uncovered by the resulting rise in tax revenue could be covered by greater public borrowing and a rise in corporate and wealth taxes. However, this will require a decisive political break with the neo-liberal project in India.

Shirin Akhter is associate professor, Department of Economics, Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. C. Saratchand is professor, Department of Economics, Satyawati College, University of Delhi. The views are personal.

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