This short series of three posts was written by Anuradha Rao, a first-year economics student at New Delhi’s Lady Sriram College, as part of a two-week internship at Prajnya. The posts lay out the pros and cons of acknowledging household work, an important feminist issue.
Should housewives be paid salaries?
Earlier this year, the Union Women and Child Development Ministry in India drafted a bill which if passed would make it compulsory for husbands to pay a specified portion of their income to their stay-at-home wives for doing household work. This generated reactions from across India and restarted an age-old debate on waged domesticity.
The role of housewives in society and their contribution to a country’s economy have been subjects of discussion across the globe for several decades. There is consensus about the fact that housewives perform economic activities; the matter under dispute is if they should receive monetary compensation for the same. In a series of three blogposts, I attempt to shed light on the issue of payment of salaries to housewives, with special focus on principle-based arguments in favour and against the topic.
Working at home
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word housewife as ‘a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family and running the household’. In American jargon, housewives are better known as ‘stay-at-home-moms’ or ‘homemakers’ while the newly drafted bill in India requires them to be addressed as ‘home engineers’. The infrequent case of a househusband also needs to be considered, but is often kept out of discussions on waged domesticity due to its relatively rare occurrence!
Under the status quo, housewives in most countries of the world perform unpaid labour. According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international body helping governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalized economy), unpaid work is the production of goods and services that are not sold in the market. The difference between unpaid work and leisure is determined by what is known as the “third person criterion”- if a third person would have to be paid for performing an activity, then that activity constitutes unpaid labour. For example, cooking a meal is unpaid work whereas watching a movie is leisure. 
Who gives how much?
Some natural questions that arise while considering remuneration for housewives are regarding how their wage is determined and who shells out the money. In 2007, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez implemented a system under which economically underprivileged housewives are eligible to claim 80 per cent of the minimum wage from the government.  In the same year, the Swedish government under Prime Minister Reinfeldt announced that Swedish parents would be paid by the State for staying at home after the birth of a child until the child turned three.  Recently, the FDC (Freedom from Debt Coalition, an NGO in Philippines conducting advocacy work to realize a common agenda for economic development) has been pressing the Government of Philippines to pay housewives an amount equivalent to the minimum wage. This was following a study conducted by the FDC, which said that the quantified efforts of a housewife approximated the work of a maid and hence entitled housewives to wages. 
In September 2012, the Union Women and Child Development Ministry in India considered tabling a bill that requires husbands to pay 10-20 per cent of their wages as an honorarium to their housewives.  This move triggered a positive reaction among some advocates who hailed it as being a step towards formally recognizing a housewife’s value.  However, it also evoked a lot of disapproval on the grounds of implementation and effectiveness. A majorly criticized aspect was that the husbands themselves were asked to dole out money to their wives thus suggesting an impractical employer-employee relationship within the household. Monitoring the execution of such a law in a country with a population of more than a billion would be next to impossible.  Many activists also pointed out that housewives having husbands earning different levels of income would be paid proportionately despite performing the same amount of work, which is extremely unfair  and hence, payments need to be made by governments as proposed in other countries. The Ministry did not elaborate on how such a bill would be practically implemented if passed.
In the next two posts, I will examine the issue from both points of view. Due to lack of clarity regarding details about implementation of the Indian Ministry’s proposal, I will present arguments assuming that wages to housewives would be given by the State.
- Cooking, Caring and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around the World: A paper by Veerle Miranda, published in OECD iLibrary