Wages for housewives: Kamal Haasan’s MNM party manifesto stirs debate

Questions raised practicality amid applause for the idea

Politics

January 10, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Wages for housewives: Kamal Haasan’s MNM party manifesto stirs debate

Kamal Hasaan’s MNM party promises to pay women for household work if voted to power in 2021 elections in Tamil Nadu (Photo Credit: PTI)

MNM’s promise to monetise household work has stirred a debate on the issue. While some dismiss the proposal as a political gimmick, others feel it is an issue that should be on every party’s manifesto. However, even supporters say that it is impractical given the current Indian social system.

“In Indian society, the burden of housework has always fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women. They are expected to take care of the house, raise kids, as well as tend to their office duties. Neither is this housework accounted for in any official figures, nor do women earn any remuneration from it. Society sees it as their “duty”, one that surprisingly doesn’t apply to men equally,” says Nidhi Joshi, a professor at Women‘s Studies and Development Centre of Advanced Study (WSDC), University of Delhi.

Joshi’s words resonate with what actor-politician Kamal Haasan’s political party promises to the housewives of Tamil Nadu. During his campaign trail last month, for the forthcoming State Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu in May 2021, Makkal Needhi Maiam’s (MNM) leader Haasan announced that his party would pay women for their household work if voted to power in 2021.

“Homemakers will get their due recognition through payment for their work at home which hitherto has been unrecognised and unmonetised, thus raising the dignity of our womenfolk,” the party says.

The MNM leader was asked if the proposition was affordable. “It is definitely possible,” he said, stating that if corruption could be eliminated, the state could be made more prosperous.

Recognising the unpaid household work

A United Nations report states that women perform around 75 per cent of the world’s unpaid care and domestic work, valued at 13 per cent of global gross domestic product. If included in national accounts, the unpaid care economy would represent between 15 to over 50 per cent of gross domestic product. The report further estimates that women in India spent about 352 minutes a day on unpaid work against 51.8 minutes by men.

According to an Oxfam report, Indian women and girls put in more than three billion hours of unpaid care work daily. If it were assigned a monetary value it would add trillions of rupees to India’s gross domestic product.

“Economists have long pointed out the need to quantify the value of women’s unpaid work. India’s low female labour participation rate does not mean women are chilling at home, it indicates that women are engaged in cooking, cleaning, raising children, and taking care of the house,” Joshi tells Media India Group.

Mumbai-based economist, Rupa Subramanya in her book Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India points out that it is both good economics and good public policy to correctly measure women’s contribution to the economy. “In a heavily patriarchal society, publicly acknowledging women’s vital economic importance through official statistics can play a role in empowering women and increasing their sense of self-worth, particularly among underprivileged and poor communities, in which the vast bulk of household work is performed by women,” she writes.

Joshi also points out the issue of unpaid care work shouldered by women due to the housework. She further says that unfair distribution of work has dealt a harsh blow to women across the country and that the state must recognise and redistribute unpaid housework equally among men and women.

“India needs to start discussing and quantifying household work done by women at home. Kamal Hassan’s pitch in the political space should ignite a much necessary conversation around the issue. It is about time,” she adds.

Revolutionary but impractical, say supporters

While Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram in neighbouring Kerala, tweeted supported for Hasan, many others raised doubts over implementation of the idea.

“For decades we have been pointing out that housework by homemakers has to be recognised and quantified as work,” U Vasuki, national vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), tells Media India Group.

“So the idea is welcome as long as the intent is not just political gains in one election,” she adds.

However, she also says that even though the idea may be revolutionary, it is very difficult to see it happening practically on ground. “All houses are not alike and various household needs various amount of work. There is a difference in the number of children a woman has or even the family members that need special care. Recognising it is a good thing, but is it even possible to keep a track of how much work each household requires,” asks Vasuki.

“The party has to tell the people of Tamil Nadu that if they plan to make household chores a formal work, how will they monitor and regulate it,” agrees Joshi.

Political gimmick & likely to confine women, say critics

As the proposal made a stir on social media, some commenters said it might further reduce the number of women seeking formal jobs in a nation with one of the lowest rates of female labour force participation and might end up confining even more women to domestic chores.

“Any woman seeking a career would be now bullied to take government’s money and stay home. This is no way towards women empowerment,” Tulsi Pillai, a 40-year-old school teacher from Chennai, Tamil Nadu tells Media India Group.

“It is just a political gimmick and even the party and Haasan himself knows that it is not going to work in the long run,” she adds.

Pillai further calls it a ‘half-baked idea’ that is either not likely to see the light of the day when the time come or is going to do more harm than good to the condition of women in the state currently.

Difficult, novel but noble idea

While the details of the plan are still being worked out, the head of the party’s women and child welfare unit, Mookambika Rathinam, in her press conference, on January 7, said that there was growing support for this idea.

“Dr Haasan grew up surrounded by women in his home and he often gives the example of his elder sister, who despite being highly qualified chose to take care of her family. It’s a lot of work that needs to be recognised as work,” Rathinam said.

Three-quarters of Indian women are either not working or looking for paid jobs, according to a government economic survey released in November 2020. It found 60 pc of women in the ‘productive age group’ of 15 to 59 were engaged in full-time housework.

“In context of these figures, paying women for household work will empower a large population in state,” says Joshi.

“While the idea may sound premature right now, it is heartening that the politicians like Haasan and Tharoor are finally showing appreciation for homemakers not just for being selfless wives and mothers, but for their unsung economic power,” she adds.

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