The debate for wages for housework intensified when in a recent judgment, the Supreme Court of India stated that a women’s work as a homemaker is as much a part of the economic process as a man’s labour in the factory or office. Social reproduction is the foundation depending on which the wheels of capitalism function smoothly. From providing labour in order to maintain the pool of labour reserve (which is a crucial part of surplus extraction in capitalism) to satisfying the survival needs of the labour within the four walls of the households and consequently in the society, social reproduction is the process without which capitalism is unsustainable.
History of the debate of wages for household work
With the onset of capitalism, argued first-wave feminists, all that remained of social reproduction was unproductive household work that had no value addition to the economy as all the productive work has been transcended to the factories thereby commercializing them. The first wave of feminism occurred in the 19th and early 20th century. It mainly focused on women’s right to vote. It advocated against treating women as property of husbands after marriage and fought for equal contract and property rights of women. Marxist feminists were of the opinion that women could be relieved of the burden of the household work if the state took measures to provide community-based child care facilities, public laundries, community-run restaurants etc. In the 1970s which was largely comprised of second-wave feminism, socialist feminists were also of the opinion that housework should be socialized and this should be an important component of the welfare state. The second wave of feminism was in the period between the 1960s to 1980s that was concerned with equality and discrimination of women. This wave is referred to as the Women’s liberation movement and went by the slogan, “Personal is Political” to highlight the interlinkages of women’s personal lives with the oppression in the power structures that they faced.
However, on the other hand, radical feminism and the supporters of the same argued that unpaid care work or household work should be paid to legitimize the household work that women did. During this period, with the onset of new technologies, there were also debates around the automation of the entire unpaid household work. However, all these arguments aren’t devoid of personal biases such as not considering the aspects of class, race, and being inclined towards the western idea of a nuclear family where family only meant a male breadwinner and a housewife thereby delegitimizing the work done for the extended family and the community at large and also not taking into account the paid domestic work performed by the domestic helpers. Hence, it is important to critically analyze various aspects of the debate on whether household work should be paid.
Dalla Costa and James who belong to the group of radical feminists argue that ‘orthodox marxism’ is of the assumption that women who are contributing to domestic labour are outside the circle of social productivity. This assumption takes away the social power of women in a capitalist society. What social reproduction produces is not only use-value but a necessary precondition for the extraction of surplus-value. Hence, labelling domestic labour as unproductive is not justified. The second stance highlights that since unpaid household work is not a part of the paid productive labour, it is essentially rendered to be inferior as it doesn’t contribute to the profit churning process of capitalism.
Angela Davis shares her opinion with the second stance of household work not being equated with abstract labour. She argues that what women do as a part of their domestic work is indispensable to the capitalist system but making it a paid wage work will further alienate them from the capitalist production process. This stance clearly states that paid housework won’t do away with the burden on women that home-based work creates in the first place. It will tie women down to the household work and take away the drive to obtain jobs outside the realm of social production which in turn will create adverse effects for them as they will lose their incentive to liberate themselves from domestic slavery. What is required is the abolition of housework if we truly want women to be free from the shackles of unpaid household work.
Federici, on the other hand, went on to argue that not asking for wages for household work will further reinstate the popular claim of household work being unproductive. To claim wages for household work is the first step towards denying it. This will reinstate their struggle against the invisibility of care work. The fact that housework is not included in GDP calculations further exposed the humungous amount of household work that goes unseen and unaccounted for in the mainstream economy. Both Davis and Federici agree on the abolishment of household work but what they differ on is whether household work should be waged or unwaged.
Finding a middle ground amidst two opposite poles
The household and the capitalist wage work is interconnected hence what is important is to find a middle ground amidst the two contesting positions. Making household work paid won’t necessarily mean that we are stepping away from the demand for equal pay for equal work. If a universal basic income is guaranteed then it can lead to the empowerment of those who are wage workers as well as those who do household work. When household workers are entitled to a basic income, they will have financial freedom which will strengthen their position in the household and give them a voice in the family. Waged household work will ensure dignity for the women performing this work and can be a positive step towards social equality.
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