The Curious Mystery of ‘Unpaid Work’

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By Ruchi Sharma

Unpaid work!! Ever wondered what is it all about? Are you engaged in cooking for your family or taking care of your kids or watering your garden daily? If yes, then this article definitely concerns you! Well, in terms of definition unpaid work actually means any kind of work that does not receive any sought of remuneration in return. In more technical terms it refers to the production of goods and services that are to be consumed within or outside the household but are not available for sale in the market (OECD, 2011). So, does that mean that climbing stairs is unpaid work? Nope, not unless you are climbing them to clean the rooftop! In most common terms, unpaid work is attributed to regular household work like cooking food for the family, mopping floors, washing clothes, etc. An activity is only considered work and not leisure if a third person could actually be paid to do the same certain activity (OECD, 2011). Now, the first and foremost question that appears in mind is how is this unpaid work? Like, aren’t these regular household chores? Well, that’s why it is called unpaid work because obviously, no one receives, and neither expects payment in lieu of cooking a scrumptious lunch for the family, right? For maintaining a household, such types of work are a necessity. But at the same time, one can’t deny the time invested in unpaid work and that brings up the age-old debate of ‘Time is Money’!

Necessarily the earning members of the families are not always males. Of course, there are millions of examples around us of women who wonderfully manage both home and work. Are you also one of those ‘SHEROES’? Like the superwoman who has got multi-skills at hand balancing work, kids, home, in short anything and everything? If yes, then first of all a big salute to you! And secondly, it’s about time to get our guys, be it husband, brother or son, to share the responsibilities at home! Of course, if you are a homemaker, a bigger salute to you! Why? Because the house functions well all because of your selfless efforts that actually is ‘unpaid work’ you indulge in with a smile! No expectations, nothing in return!

What do facts say?

Internationally, the United Nations has time and again talked about redistributing unpaid work. Going by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) Study, the situation is not very different world over and women spend more time than men doing unpaid work. Countries like Norway, Hong Kong and even the US have witnessed women spending at least 20 percent more time than men on unpaid work. Women’s unpaid work statistics all over the world reveal vast disparity and gender imbalances but this disparity is more visible in developing countries. 

The first ‘Time Use Survey’ was done by NSO (National Statistical Office) during January-December 2019 to assess the contribution of men and women in paid and unpaid work. The results were out in October 2020 and unsurprisingly women outdid men as far as the number of hours contributed towards unpaid work were accounted for. Considering both rural and urban areas, females spent whooping 299 minutes per day on unpaid domestic services towards family! That is almost 5 hours every day while males spent just 97 minutes on the same. That’s a mere hour and a half! Even when unpaid caregiving services for family members were considered, females spent an additional 134 minutes while males spent less than 80 minutes! That became a total of 433 minutes of unpaid work for females! Even if rural and urban areas are bifurcated, the situation doesn’t change much. Multiplying these minutes by the number of women in India would lead to multi-billion hours’ worth of time being spent on unpaid work.

Why is this important?

Now the question is why is this topic important? Like obviously aren’t these household chores a necessity? Someone has to do them, right? And most importantly isn’t it the task of the woman of the house?

The most common myth associated with these chores is they are to be necessarily done by women. Like cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids, etc., all these are to be done by the ladies of the house! Do you guys agree with it? Well, we don’t!! Obviously, it’s a pleasure to do something for the family and it gives us immense satisfaction as well but it’s definitely written nowhere that it’s a woman’s job. The value of unpaid work is not easy to quantify. But the time spent on unpaid work is enormous and even if half of it is utilized towards some actual job, it could increase the economic activity in the country by a multifold amount. This is only possible by increasing gender balance. The female participation in the labour force in India is less than 33%, of course, there are various reasons for the same but one can’t deny the major role of the burden of unpaid work on women that leaves them with less than enough time to think of an actual career. Many women shy away from going out to do jobs as they are worried about who will take care of the kids and the house. 

So, the monetary aspect of time crops up. If a certain percentage of time is reduced on unpaid work, it leaves women with enough time to invest it in an actual job. In most developed countries, the gender difference of unpaid work is not that enormous. So, the tradeoff between unpaid work and paid work could become the actual defining point of the massive future economic development in India. 

Breaking the Stereotypes

Breaking the shackles in society starts with changing the mindset. A step towards the direction is to eradicate from the mind that household work, be it taking care of elderly and children, etc. is the work of the females. Like, where is it written in the rule book that dishes are to be washed by only girls??? It's similar just in the way that it's written nowhere that it’s the male in the family who is responsible for financially running the house. Women’s unpaid household labour can’t be quantified and in some cases, neither be avoided, but why not take steps to reduce it?

The whole concept actually revolves around reducing the gender-based difference in the responsibility for unpaid work. Of course, cooking food, taking care of the elderly and kids, cleaning, washing dishes, etc. is important, right? And not everyone can afford household help for all these works. So how is it feasible to reduce the time spent on unpaid work by women? It has a very simple solution! Time for everyone to share the responsibilities. A family is made up of mom, dad, kids, grandparents, etc. So why not everyone share the responsibility? If the guys in the family contribute towards helping in the household work, it actually helps in improving the bond within the family and at the same time reduces the burden that completely falls on the ladies in the family. Of course, nowadays many households are seeing a reverse trend wherein guys contribute equally towards home responsibilities! Is your house also one of those balanced ones?

Is everything about money?

No! Obviously not! But the unpaid work also points out the thankless aspect of the job. Especially for a country like ours, it’s a must to take steps towards increasing women’s participation in the labour force since statistics show that women’s participation in labour force in India is less than 33%. Irrespective of a male or a female engaging in unpaid work, neither expects anything in return for the same. But a gender balance is the need of the moment in every arena of life, be it jobs, rights or even household work. Getting more guys to contribute towards unpaid work and lend a helping hand to the women in the house helps in making them better humans in society. And in today’s world, everyone needs to be self-sufficient which includes learning the household stuff as well. So, a correct balance would contribute to the overall development of the economy as well as society. At the same time, new avenues of economic development would open up as an added advantage. 

So, how to bring a change?

The ‘Unpaid’ aspect of this work cannot be changed much that’s for sure considering it's actually a necessity rather than duty. But, the scenario and imbalance can definitely be altered with some efforts from all parties concerned. We understand that the working people aren’t left with much time to help towards household work but it’s all about willingness and time management! If each person in the family knows where they can and have to help, it brings about not only a balance but also leads to a societal reform. The kids including the son can help mamma in laying the dining table, husbands could help in watering the plants or maybe even occasionally cooking food on like Sundays, everyone could help with dusting etc. Sharing work amongst each other would help in not only building a family bond but also respect for each other! There are certain situations when the family size is too small to consider reducing the burden of ‘unpaid work’ on the lady of the house. But even if the family consists of just two people, there is always a scope to help each other. As the saying goes- ‘Where there is a will, there is a way’. So, we just need to be on the lookout of how we can distribute the household work, caretaking of our elderly and kids, etc. amongst each other. According to an IMF study, the Government can help by investing in infrastructure and public services like electricity, security, water, digital connectivity everywhere to reduce unpaid work. Now this one is not in our hands, so what can we do about it?

Here are a few suggestions from us that we think could lend a helping hand towards bringing a systematic change:

-Vocational Education and skilling can help women indulged only in household work go a long way. Of course, the growing digitalization has opened doors to endless opportunities to build a career from home. It’s a boon for women worried about balancing their careers and home.

-Involving kids with mundane tasks like laying the dining table or watering plants.

-Hubbies cooking at least one meal on Sundays and all holidays, maybe even involving the kids, leading to the pack bonding over cooking!

-Giving all our moms/ sisters/ wives a ‘ME TIME’ every day of at least half an hour. Trust me we deserve it!

-Emphasis on ‘Work from Home’ could actually help in bringing more women in the workforce as they can still monitor the household while working.

-Employment of household help actually contributes towards bringing the unpaid nature of many jobs like cooking, cleaning, etc. to the status of paid. Since we give salary to the help. If women in the house engage in some revenue-generating activities themselves, it could be possible to get house help on board! Though many of us may not agree with the above point of engaging maids/butlers etc. since some of us like to do the work ourselves in our house, then the next best option is getting the balance right between paid and unpaid work.

The growing debate

The debate around providing remuneration against unpaid work to women is growing in the world. The past few months have witnessed endless articles on the same. We are sure that you all have read articles with big words like using time as a value measure, TUS etc. but the main thing is recognizing the hard work put in by men and women alike and trying to set a gender balance for unpaid work. It’s not to belittle your efforts and emotions for your family. No, it’s all about ensuring women’s rights and social justice. Of course, it doesn't seem a possibility to completely have a gender balance in sharing unpaid work in the near future, but let’s try taking one step at a time by instilling values in our sons and brothers to respect women and encourage them in contributing towards household work!

So, next time someone gets you a steaming cup of hot coffee when you return home all tired, irrespective of whether it’s your mom, dad, brother or sister, don’t forget to give them a big smile and a ‘Thank You’ hug for being there for you! Because what they do for you is purely their love, and love is something that can never be quantified. And obviously, we need to pass these habits as a part of the legacy to the kids especially to our sons so that we raise them to be better citizens of society! 


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