Work without pay

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

A woman labourer carrying home firewood in Delhi. According to NSS data, 19 per cent of urban women are engaged in collection of fuel wood for household consumption.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

A woman labourer carrying home firewood in Delhi. According to NSS data, 19 per cent of urban women are engaged in collection of fuel wood for household consumption.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

There should be not only social recognition of unpaid labour but also some attempt by society to reward or compensate those who perform it.

MOST women reading this will recognise what I am about to write - that most women work, regardless of whether or not their work is recognised. Indeed, in countries such as India where the recorded work participation rates are relatively low by Asian standards, it is hardly ever the case that women are not working - rather, it is simply that most of what they do is not recorded as economic activity or as otherwise socially necessary and certainly is rarely rewarded in monetary terms.

It is true that the major sources of data, such as the Census of India and the National Sample Surveys (NSS), have increased their attempt to recognise women's work by asking probing questions that seek to establish women's involvement in economic activity. However, this is still defined to include only participation in work for the household farm or enterprise and does not include housework, childcare, care of the sick and old, and related activities associated with social reproduction. It also does not include related work necessary for provisioning for the household, whether it is fuel wood collection in the rural areas or attempts to obtain access to clean water in the urban areas, activities that are typically the responsibility of the women of the household.

Recently, there have been attempts to capture some of the evidence on unpaid work by women, through time-use surveys. These in general show not only that a very substantial amount of women's time is devoted to unpaid labour, often at the cost of leisure and rest, but also that such unpaid labour may actually be increasing over time, especially in the past decade.

There are several reasons for this. Structural adjustment policies, which have squeezed various types of government expenditure, have in effect meant a reduction in access to a range of public goods and services for ordinary citizens. This tends to affect women especially adversely as the additional burden normally falls on them. Cutbacks in per capita health expenditure and the increase in user charges for such services reduce the extent to which the poor use such facilities. Quite apart from reducing their own access to health facilities, this in turn increases the burden of labour on women in poor households as the responsibility for caring for the sick who cannot be hospitalised usually falls on them. Worsening of urban infrastructure, such as drinking water supply and sanitation, implies greater time spent in ensuring minimally clean water supply for the household. Inadequate access to fuel for cooking requires more time spent in collecting firewood or going in for more time-consuming and labour-intensive forms of cooking. And so on.

Sometimes the increase in women's unpaid labour results not from cutbacks in public expenditure so much as from the attempt to fulfil other social objectives. Certain public policy measures often have the unfortunate (and unintended) effect of increasing women's unpaid work. This is true of many apparently "gender-blind" policies that end up increasing unpaid labour time, whether they are afforestation policies that increase the time spent in collecting fuel wood or sanitation policies that require large amounts of time to be spent on collecting water for household use or health policies that put the basic burden of care of the sick upon household members.

In turn, such increases in the unpaid labour time of mothers often implies that other household tasks have to be shared, in general with elder girl children. There are numerous micro studies that indicate this tendency, in both rural and urban areas. In addition, even the 2004-05 NSS round found that 52 per cent of rural females and 63 per cent of urban females (of 15 years or more) are dominantly engaged in domestic work. This was not simply because they were not working outside and therefore described themselves as working within the home. Rather, the dominant proportion of girls and women who were engaged in domestic duties were constrained to spend most of their days in this way, whether as a sole occupation or in addition to other economic activities.

According to this survey, 45 per cent of rural women and 56 per cent of urban women dominantly engaged in household work had no choice but to spend their time in this way - mostly because there was no other family member to fulfil these tasks and they could not afford hired help. Predictably, these proportions were particularly high for women in the age group 30-59 years, but they were close to half even for younger women and around one-third even for women older than 60 years.

Incidentally, this excludes those who engaged in unpaid household labour in a subsidiary capacity, which would include a large proportion of those women who are otherwise employed. The NSS data record that 16 per cent of rural women and 25 per cent of urban women who are dominantly engaged in household work also engage in some other "economic" activity on a subsidiary basis. Similarly, around half of the women usually involved in recognised economic activity also have to perform domestic duties, implying a "double burden" of work for such women.

Many of the unpaid household-based activities of such women are not simply those related to social reproduction but are very clearly economic in nature. Some of them are activities that continue and have become even more significant because of the invisibility of and social lack of attention to the unpaid labour of women. For instance, of those involved in unpaid domestic work, 57 per cent of rural women and 19 per cent of urban women were engaged in the free collection of fuel wood for household consumption. Activities related to food processing, such as husking and grinding grain, were engaged in by around 15 per cent of women. Other unpaid activities such as maintaining kitchen gardens and looking after livestock and poultry also occupied a majority of women - 60 per cent in rural areas and 24 per cent in urban areas. These are all economic activities, which in developed societies are often recognised as such because they are increasingly being delegated by women and performed through paid contracts.

One of the more disturbing features of the way in which labour is organised and performed in India is the extent to which it devolves upon girl children. The latest information on the usual activity of girl children suggests that, despite the increase in school enrolment of girls, a significant proportion of girls are still forced to engage in unpaid work, either as part of the household enterprise or in domestic duties or in miscellaneous activities. In rural areas around one-fourth of girls are not in school but are working as part of their usual activity, and in urban areas around 12 per cent of girls are so engaged. Even among girls who attend school as their principal activity, a significant proportion also engages in unpaid labour, usually in the home. And more than 75 per cent of such girls say that they are forced to do this because of the absence of others to do this work.

So it appears that young girls are still put to work - in domestic duties, as workers in household enterprises and in a range of miscellaneous activities. And the dominant proportion of this work is unpaid. Yet this phenomenon remains little recognised and even women's activists have devoted relatively less attention to this issue.

Unpaid labour is rarely something to be celebrated, and as far as possible, there should be not only social recognition of it but also some attempt by society to reward or compensate those who perform it. Thus, unpaid workers should be given the same social concern that motivates public policies for pension and insurance schemes for workers in general. Similarly, other changes that reduce the amount of time spent in unpaid labour should also be encouraged.

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