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How unpaid labour by women subsidises the Indian economy

The latest time-use survey on women’s and men’s work has just been released by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), albeit 20 years after the first time-use survey was conducted. We must congratulate the NSSO for successfully completing this survey as this was much needed. Some startling findings have emerged regarding the work done by men and women — the NSSO report states that women perform 10 times more unpaid care work than men. Incredible as this sounds, the information is not new to those working on these issues for decades. Through numerous surveys and other studies, it had been estimated for long that women are putting in far more hours of hard labour in the form of paid and unpaid work than men. The irony is that while the entire neo-liberal economy is running on the backs of the hard toil put in by women in terms of care work — cooking, cleaning, looking after children, the old and infirm, tending to family farm and family business, and other such work — this backbreaking unpaid labour is neither recognised nor accounted for in systems of national accounting. In turn, women’s work is not considered as productive labour and, therefore, they are denied equal wages, social protection, etc.

The NSSO report states that women spend 238 minutes (four hours) more on unpaid work each day than men in India. This is enormous amount of work undertaken by women. Men also tend to take on the kinds of household work that fit within their formal work schedules, while women do not generally possess the choice of not performing household tasks even if there are other constraints. Thus, men would typically do those care jobs which require a person to step out of the household, such as fetching water, marketing, etc. while the more heavy lifting jobs are left for the women. The unequal distribution of unpaid care work, effectively, allows men to participate in the labour market while limiting a woman’s capacity to do the same, even though men and women in a household spend the same total amount of time “working”.

This is corroborated by the NSSO data, which states that male participation in paid work is over three times that of women. However, if we take into account paid and unpaid work, women’s participation rises to 85 per cent, while men are at 73 per cent. The difference lies in formal work being recognised and remunerated, with the result that traditional gender roles tend to be reinforced at the household level itself, with women’s bargaining power consequently reduced.

Oxfam India’s studies on women’s unpaid care work in 2019 and 2020 observe that women have to work, no matter what the circumstances maybe. This is especially true for women from poorer households, where they not only shoulder high burden of unpaid work, but also have to take on paid work to supplement the meagre incomes of their male family members. Consequently, women are extremely time poor — they have no time to take care of their health and well-being. This, in turn, leads to lack of opportunities for pursuing education and employment. As a result, women are trapped in a vicious cycle, where high burden of unpaid work deny them basic human rights of health, education and employment. No wonder women are lagging behind on all counts of empowerment in the country, despite policies and programmes in place to support them — the fundamental issue of them shouldering the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work has been neglected for long. Another interesting data point from the NSSO report is that the maximum time spent by males in unpaid activities is when they are unemployed, while maximum time spent by females is when they are out of the labour force. The gap between time spent by male and female participants is highest when they are out of labour force (a gap of 231 minutes) and least when they are unemployed (92 minutes). This needs some unpacking as there are gender differentials to this phenomenon.

Men choose to do unpaid work when they are relatively free from paid work, thus their time spent on unpaid work is higher when they are unemployed. But women spend maximum time on unpaid work when they are completely out of the labour force. This is because of the phenomenon of women dropping out of the labour force entirely because of high burdens of unpaid work on them.

While the quantification of women’s paid and unpaid work by the government is a welcome step, it is, however, the first step towards a long road of bringing justice to the millions of hardworking women of India. As the next step, government of India should include women’s unpaid work within formal definitions of productive labour.

Source: The Indian Express

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