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January 26, 2021

What is women’s housework time worth?

What is women’s housework time worth?

A newly formed political party in India has promised to pay salaries to housewives if they are voted into power. The idea has been welcomed by a prominent MP who said it will “monetise the services of women homemakers, enhance their power and autonomy” and create a near-universal basic income.

According to data from the International Labour Organization, women around the world still spend a great deal of time in unpaid work—ranging from a maximum of 345 minutes per day in Iraq to 168 minutes per day in Taiwan. 

India has 160 million homemakers who clean, cook, manage the family finances, fetch food, water and firewood, and care for children and elderly relatives. They spend 297 minutes a day doing domestic work, compared to just 31 minutes spent by men. 

Prabha Kotiswaran, a professor of law and justice at King’s College London, has found that India’s courts have actually been awarding compensation for unpaid work done by homemakers for 50 years; however, only after they have died. The court system has developed a legal framework for valuing housework when deciding compensation packages for the dependants of women who have died in road accidents.

Judges have taken into account the following when deciding compensation amounts: the opportunity cost of a woman’s decision to stay within the home (i.e. the foregone benefits of not being in the workforce); minimum wage rates for skilled and unskilled workers; the educational qualifications of the deceased woman; her age; and whether she had children or not.

Examples of amounts awarded vary from 1.7 million rupees ($23,263; £17,019) paid to the family of a 33-year-old homemaker who died in a road accident, to paying half of a husband’s salary, with the view that marriage is an “equal economic partnership.”

So, if a family can be compensated for unpaid work done by a woman after she has died, why not pay them for that work when they are still alive?

Prof Kotiswaran says there are still many questions that need answering before mobilizing for salaries for housewives. For example, should the money for the wages come from cash transfers, state subsidies, or a universal basic income? Should family laws be changed to recognize women’s unpaid work? Should men performing the same tasks be included in the payment schemes?

Leslie S. Stratton has looked into the determinants of housework time for IZA World of Labor. “Substantial resources are devoted to household production, and boosting efficiency in this sector could have large economic effects,” she says. “Designing tax policies that focus on individual rather than household income would reduce women’s tax-distorted incentive to increase their home production time once they are married,” she says. Stratton goes on to say that “the gender wage gap alone cannot explain the entire gender difference in housework time. Some of the difference has been attributed to differences in social norms; some may be attributable to differences in relative productivity and preferences,” which, she notes, are for individuals to determine, not policymakers. “However,” Stratton concludes, “education programs that provide both boys and girls with the skills necessary to maintain a home and that discourage gendered notions of behavior could increase the efficiency of time allocation decisions.”

Read more articles about women’s labor force participation.