The Economic Value of a Homemaker
“The conception that housewives do not work or do not add economic value to the household is problematic and needs to be overcome”- was the statement issued by the Supreme Court while dealing with a motor accident case in 2021. The court was dealing with grant of compensation in the case where the Delhi High court had reduced the earnings of the deceased wife as she was a homemaker. A three judge bench headed by Justice NV Ramana was of the opinion that fixing an economic value to the hard work and labour done by homemakers is difficult but nevertheless significant. Consider another statement made by the Supreme Court of India a few years back- “Housewives are an invaluable, unpaid resource and definitely not unproductive.” This statement was made in the context of the Census report in 2001 over clubbing housewives and women engaged in domestic work along with categories containing beggars, prostitutes and prisoners within the Census. The Census was of the opinion that the logic behind the clubbing of housewives with beggars and prostitutes stems from the fact that none of them directly contribute to the economy. In simple words, it means that all the three categories of people are unproductive. The court described the approach of the statutory authorities toward homemakers as highly insensitive and callous, indicating a strong gender bias against women.
Traditionally, in Indian society, the contribution of homemakers towards the development of their houses and in turn the economy has almost always been unrecognized. India’s 160 million homemakers, like many of their counterparts in the rest of the world, cook, clean, wash up and manage finances in the household. A recent report released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation showed that on an average, women spend 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services for household members as compared to 97 minutes spent by men on an average. A lesser known fact is that Indian courts have been awarding compensation for the unpaid work done by homemakers for more than half a century, but only after their death. While calculating the amount of compensation in the case of a deceased homemaker, the judges have taken into account a number of factors: the opportunity cost of a woman’s decision to work at home, the educational qualification of the deceased, her age and whether she had children or not. The Supreme Court has awarded menial amounts upto Rs 9000 per month for a deceased housewife aged between 34-60 years, with a lesser compensation for a deceased housewife aged between 61-72 years. The reason for the decrease in compensation is because courts believe that the amount of work a housewife has to put in is considerably less as the children grow up.
Many in this patriarchal society are of the belief that women “fit” the role of a homemaker and are meant to provide for the house and the family. Economists believe that though unpaid, the household work done by homemakers constitutes economic activity and should be included in the national income. Efforts were also made on the political front regarding the same issue. A huge number of women live with domestic violence because they are economically dependent on their husbands. Thus, in 2012, the then Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath had suggested that the labour performed by housewives should be quantified and that they should be paid the rightful amount by their husbands in an attempt to make them financially independent and help them live their lives with dignity. However,the proposal, which received a lot of backlash, was given a quiet burial two years later in 2014 with a change of dispensation. In December 2020, Makkal Needhi Maiam, a party led by Kamal Hasan, promised to make homemakers a salaried class with the same intention of making them self sustainable. The party’s agenda to provide a salary to homemakers drew a lot of attention and was backed by The Indian National Congress leader Shashi Tharoor in a tweet that said:
In 2007, Venezuela, with a population of 2.72 crores at that time, became the first country to pay their housewives. The then President Hugo Chavez issued a statement where in the first phase 1,00,000 women were paid 80% of the minimum wage, equating to almost 13,000 INR at that time. After a period of four months, another 1,00,000 women were covered in the next phase. As per a report by the United Nations, 75% of the world’s unpaid care and domestic work is done by women. Unpaid domestic work accounts for 13% of the global Gross Domestic Product. In India, a staggering 49% of the women contribute to the GDP but are not even counted. However, the underlying issue which is whether housewives should be paid a salary or not remains as pressing as ever. How can a woman’s domestic work be quantified? How can we fund the salaries and deliver them through a leaky bureaucracy? Who will pay for it? Would it not put an additional burden on the taxpayer’s money? Ultimately, attempts to provide a fair remuneration to homemakers seems like a well meaning but unworkable proposal with all evidence aiming towards the endeavour being more aspirational than practical.
(FY.BSc . Economics)