Domestic work: should you be paid for it?

Oct 26, 2021

6 mins

Domestic work: should you be paid for it?
Eve Guiraud

Journaliste indépendante

Invisible, unremunerated, undervalued and a source of inequality, domestic work – and how to pay for it – has been an issue in feminist debates since the 1960s. With the current Covid crisis and subsequent lockdowns, gender inequality has only increased – with mothers often forced to manage a household, to the detriment of their professional life – and the debate has come back into the spotlight. So should we be paying for domestic work? And if so, how? Are we even sure we know how to define it? Let’s take a look.

Spring 2020: like almost everywhere else on the planet, Germany closed up, locked down and its schools shut their doors. Except that, within German borders, there was an unprecedented protest movement: mothers launched a campaign, the #coronaelternrechnenab (“Parents settle their scores with Corona”). They submitted a bill for running their households to their respective regions after calculating the time they spent not just on chores, but on taking care of their children while schools, preschools, and nurseries were closed.

Their goal? Protesting against unpaid domestic work and drawing attention to its impact on the professional lives of women.“The problem with this unexpected extra work is that it reduces the amount of time I have available to work, for my company and my employees, causing considerable financial losses,” explains Andrea, a mother of three, on her blog. “I don’t work for free.” This work, while often unseen, is essential to society, says Céline Marty, a Ph.D. student in the philosophy of work. “All these household tasks and child-rearing benefit both the husbands, who are exempted from doing them, and capitalism, which sees its labor forces replenished for free,” she says.

Pay them back

The issue of paid domestic work has been coming up in feminist debates since the 1960s. Recent isolated legal decisions in several countries have ruled in its favor. In Portugal, China, and before that, Argentina, ex-husbands have been fined and ordered to pay compensation to their former wives. This is a welcome change according to Sibylle Gollac, a sociology researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and co-author (with Céline Bessière) of the book How Families Reproduce the Inequalities of Capitalism.“Married life accentuates wage inequalities,” she says. “While the income gap is only 9% between single women and men, it reaches 42% in opposite-sex couples.”

The authors observed that not sharing tasks equally creates real financial inequalities, which are particularly noticeable in a separation. “These inequalities linked to the gendered division of labor accumulate over the course of a lifetime. Women save less since their labor income is lower. So we have concluded, somewhat controversially, that while women work, men accumulate.”

Domestic work: a third of GDP?

But domestic work makes up a significant part of a country’s economy, as Nicole Teke, co-founder of the French group Collective for a Right to Income, explains: “A French study for INSEE, led by Delphine Roy in 2012, showed that the value of domestic work in France contributed to a national output equivalent to 33% of GDP in 2010. This is the equivalent of making housework a paid service in the labor market. One hour of housework would thus be equivalent to one hour of remuneration for domestic help.”

Teke also points out the pitfalls of this methodology, which doesn’t deal with the subjective nature of defining domestic work: “If I cook, is it truly work if I’m enjoying myself making dinner for friends? If I garden, is it a pastime or is it work?” Julie Hebting, the founder of Maydée, a household chore-sharing app, also admits there is a grey area: “The classification of certain tasks, such as sewing and DIY, is very complex. Is it more of a hobby or is it domestic work?” In order to arrive at a definition of domestic work, INSEE came up with three categories according to the time spent on certain tasks: the first includes cleaning, cooking, and caring for children; the second, gardening, DIY, and playing with children, and the final one includes walking the dog!

Is home life part of the economy?

Is this blurred boundary between work and leisure an issue if we’re asking for pay? No, according to a lawyer and militant feminist Valérie Duez-Ruff, for whom the notion of pleasure – not inherently incompatible with work – should in no way legitimize unpaid domestic chores: “When a domestic worker performs tasks outside their individual professional activity, they must be compensated,” she says. For Hebting, it also depends on how the word “work” is defined: “Why is the term ‘work’ only associated with the business world? The dictionary defines work as all human activities organized and coordinated with the goal of producing something useful. In my opinion, defining domestic work in this way is to recognize its value.” But should day-to-day life be monetized in an already ultra-capitalist society?

Gollac, who considers that domestic activities are inherent “work” in the typical economic sense, dismisses this ethical question: “The separation between private and professional life is the result of a long historical evolution. Self-sufficiency was common on farms, and the line between production for the market and the household was blurred for a long time. The ‘salarisation’ of the economy, as well as the gradual separation of domestic and paid work spaces, have increasingly drawn the line between the professional and public sphere on the one hand, and the domestic, and private sphere on the other. This is a sociohistorical construction that legitimizes the exploitation of women’s unpaid domestic work.

What are the risks of paying for domestic work?

While Gollac advocates the need for paid domestic work, she also acknowledges its complexity: “The few historical experiments have not been satisfactory,” she says. And for good reason: the pay was then conditional on the woman’s withdrawal from the labor market.“For example, the single wage benefits introduced in France in 1941 (under the Vichy regime, the benefits were attributed to the household, not specifically to the woman), or the various maternity allowances that currently exist in Russia, are measures created by conservative regimes whose explicit aim was to push women back into this role. This has only served to assign domestic work to women.” Duez-Ruff is equally cautious: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions! Paying for domestic work creates the risk of having a parental wage, discouraging the less economically productive parent from returning to work.”

There is also the question of who should pay for this work… The spouse? “But can they afford it? Is the risk that rich men’s wives will be better paid than the wives of poor men?” asks Gollac. That leaves the state, which is already largely responsible for economic disparities between the sexes. “This would mean revising our tax system,” says Gollac. “Today, in France, the tax system is favorable to men whose wives sacrifice their professional careers.”

For Duez-Ruff, state intervention is not an appropriate solution. “I find it difficult to put the burden of paying for domestic work on the collective whole. In my view, it should be a matter for the private sphere, and each individual should have the freedom to take on domestic work rather than outsource it.** Since the most economically fragile households receive government support, taking on domestic work on an individual scale would not create economic and social discrimination.”

The state is already playing its part, according to Hebting: “In France, there are benefits paid to families with young children (PreParE); benefits from the CAF to a parent, regardless of gender, who takes parental leave; and compensatory benefits in cases of divorce, which can be paid to one of the spouses to limit the economic disparities resulting from the dissolution of the marriage.” According to Duez-Ruff, one avenue worth exploring is private legislation: Perhaps the issue of domestic work should be addressed before any union, for example in an employment contract, or in the articles of the Civil Code that are read out at a wedding.”

Who foots the bill?

There’s still the issue of how to calculate the amount payable for domestic work. For Ruez-Duff, this needs to be approached on a case-by-case basis. “The amount of compensation should be based on the professional loss of earnings of the person doing the domestic work. The spouse who gives up their career, or reduces their working hours, and therefore gives up their career growth, both financially and in terms of promotion, is at a major disadvantage compared to the partner who has the more typical career path. In concrete terms, a female corporate executive’s hourly rate would thus logically be higher than that of a working-class woman, even though the domestic work is the same, because the impact on their career, as well as their pension rights, is quite different.” Teke agrees, saying that the sum must be based on financial loss: “Try to calculate the impact in terms of career growth. If I had not gone part-time, if I had accepted this job offer or this promotion, what would I be getting paid?”

Even if it’s only to call out the exploitation of women in the home, Teke maintains that domestic work must be valued. “Domestic work has direct implications for the public sphere, including gender inequalities.” However, to open up a wide-reaching debate on the issue of women’s financial autonomy, it might be necessary to take on other measures beforehand. The first is to provide better pay for caregiving jobs, “which are some of the worst paying out there”, according to Teke, and often include domestic tasks such as looking after children and relatives, and cleaning. “Fiscal and social policies can also provide effective tools for change,” she says, “for example, by reforming tax laws for married couples.” In any case, the fact that domestic work is linked with the private sphere should not prevent it from becoming a matter of public debate. It’s a necessary step towards truly reducing economic inequalities within a couple.

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

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