This article is in response to the Indian Express story titled Explained: How to measure unpaid care work and address its inequalities by Arundhati Chakravarty, dated 2 May, 2021.
The article recognises unpaid housework as the “hidden engine that keeps economies, businesses and societies running and (that which) 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% of global GDP (US$11 trillion)”.
The article ends open-endedly, calling for more research and analysis for policy evaluation in order to move a step further towards a more equitable society. Surely, housework is difficult to measure because there is no quantifiable yardstick to know how much of the work is purely dedicated to care and how much of it contributes to a profitable goal.
But I believe a qualitative analysis may have an answer hidden in them. I propose that all legal cohabitation, either through marriage or a live-in relationship, be treated as a single entity and all the family’s earnings be brought at par with each other.
For instance, if a husband’s in-hand salary is ₹20 and his wife earns ₹10, the husband’s employer is liable to pay ₹5 to the wife’s account to compensate for the additional housework and other intangible services like moral support and encouragement.
Here is a list of personal anecdotes from my peers and family members, which brings us to this single solution:
My cousin and one of her male colleagues were considered for a promotion. The colleague finally made it to the new title. She sensed injustice and brought up her concerns to her manager.
The manager sat her down and asked her, “Are you married?” She said, “Yes, I am.” The manager retorted, “What does your husband do?” She said, “He is an Assistant Manager at XYZ company.” The manager sighed and said, “You see, here lies the problem. You can comfortably live off your husband’s pay and prestige. That poor colleague has to climb up the ladder to fend for his family.”
She was dumbstruck and submitted her resignation papers in the following week itself.
Owing to her recent marriage and the mounting burden of housework, a friend had joined a new start-up which allowed her to work from home for 3 days a week. She was comfortably managing her home and work.
One day due to an unprecedented event at the office, she worked late and could not prepare dinner before her husband got back from the office. Upon returning from office, he enquired and felt the delay to be reasonable. But he simply walked into the bedroom and put his head down on the pillow.
She asked several times if something was troubling him, but he didn’t say anything explicitly. After managing to prepare and serve him food quickly, it dawned on her how he was discreetly putting the onus of the household chores on her — just because she works from home and is paid less. This, somewhere, demeaned her economic contribution to the family.
My grandfather has made a fortune for himself. And my grandmother had left her job in due course. She had no paying capacity as she was officially unemployed and had to ask her husband to run the expenses of the house.
On the day that my grandfather had a sudden heart attack, the uncertainty stirred my grandmother. She had no idea where to fend for the exorbitant hospital bills. She was lucky to have some common friends at her beck and call. And thankfully, my grandfather too came back fit and fine but still does not choose to reveal any information about their belongings.
I chanced upon an artist’s account of how she was offered a brilliant role in a play. She subconsciously knew that her husband would be extremely disappointed by this offer. They were jointly running a small production house and didn’t think of his wife as either capable or interested in pursuing something independently. So, she was secretly rehearsing for the audition, day-after-day.
She thought to herself that she would communicate only if she makes it to the role. On the day of the audition, she forgot the scheduled time and reached the venue an hour late. The psychotherapist author’s analysis suggests that she conveniently forgot the scheduled time since she subconsciously feared jeopardising her family life.
In a family where the wife earns substantially more than the husband, the onus of housework clearly steers away from her too. It works both ways. I had friends whose fathers would happily take responsibility for the household chores and would be the sole chefs of their tiffins. And the woman automatically has a lot more say in the monetary decisions of the house.
My parents jointly run a legal firm. There used to be a time when my father would manage all the finances solely and would keep some money for use by the rest of the house. And if my mother were to use any money, she would immediately feel accountable to give my father an explanation and the details of the expenses.
I think it was when my siblings and I were in college and my mother began travelling more often that they held a joint account together. Since then, my mother always feels a sense of ownership over her money. She has more paying capacity than ever and uses it at her own discretion.
It was when my uncle’s business collapsed that my aunt’s considerably low paying job rose to great importance. My uncle would willingly take on responsibility at home so that she could comfortably continue to work. It was her job and the “meagre earnings” that kept them and their household afloat in a time of great crisis.
Now I would like you to think about these stories in a different light. How do you think the stories would have differed if there were an equitable distribution of wealth in the first place? Would ambitious wives and home-loving husbands have more leeway to exercise free will? Will there be a respectful attitude towards all kinds of work? Will it reinforce the perception of combined effort in raising a family?