Women’s Paid and Unpaid Work: Some Reflections

Sona Mitra

It is generally
and quite correctly argued that within an economy, women’s work participation
is determined by several factors such as age, education level, skill levels,
wages, household income level, marital status and several other economic,
socio-political and cultural factors. However, while these do determine the
necessary conditions for women to enter the workforce, that is mostly the
supply side factors of women’s employment, the issue of whether women workers
are able to participate in ‘gainful economic activities’ depends greatly on the
degree of women’s access to the labour markets.

As the site of
production shifted away from the household, women were required to play a much
more central role in reproduction as increases in agricultural productivity
also led to an increase in the demand for labour and women were confined to
rigid reproductive roles more than ever. There are also many other historical
documentation which shows us that women have ingeniously been stereotyped as a
caretaker of the economy, slowly and gradually pushing her into the ‘unpaid
care economy’, which for a long time, kept women preoccupied in the
reproductive economy, without acknowledging the huge contributions that she simultaneously
made to the productive economy.
These changes
obviously took over thousands of years to come into effect. While the above is
also a much generalized way to present the rigidities in women’s role, it of
course was different across civilizations, continents, regions and societies.
However, that private property and development of capitalism altered the gender
relations of a society, is an argument that has been substantiated several
times in the accounts of Marxist feminist scholars.  It has also been more or less accepted by the
feminists that the ‘family’ in its nuclear form has been a major site for the
subjugation of women where roles of men and women are defined rigidly.
Thus while this
creates a barrier to the entry of women into the labour markets, there also
exists the contestations for this argument where it is often claimed that the
advance of capitalism has broken new grounds for women’s empowerment. Women
have been pushed out of the confines of the households to take up gainful
employment which has helped in the emancipation of women. Undoubtedly, with the
advance of capitalism, women have come to play an important role in the sphere
of labour markets. During the period of industrial revolution, women had
participated in large numbers in the process. In the period of post war
reconstruction period, there were several types of home based activities that
had emerged where women would participate to earn additional incomes for the
households, while they were also being pushed out of the factories to make
space for their male counterparts.
In the last few
decades, in the emerging form of globalisation, re-emergence of free markets, removal
of tariff barriers, ushering in of free trade agreements, women in developing
countries have come to play a very important role. This kind of globalised
world has definitely created newer avenues for women’s employment. In the
entire global south at some period or other export-oriented employment in the
factories saw a substantialrise in the rate of growth of women’s employment. During
1970s to 1990s ,Mehra and Gammage (1999) have shown that economic activity among
women increased in all regions except Sub-Saharan Africa and East and South-East
Asia. In the latter two Asian regions, they were already high. Large increases occurred
in countries that adopted export-oriented development strategies, and especially
those that set up Export Processing Zones (EPZs), where women comprise on average
about 70 percent of the labor force(JoekesandWeston,1994).
economic crisis in the developing South especially in the developing Americas
in the early and mid-1990s and the South-east Asian crisis of the 1997-98, led
to a process of increased informal employment for women in the form of a surge
in home-based sub-contracted employment outsourced by the large MNCs. The ILO_WIEGO
report on Women and Men in the Informal Economy, 2013 reports that out of the
total home based workers, 62 percent in South Africa, 70 percent in Brazil and
88 percent in Ghana are women. Significant portions of homebased work pertain
to manufacturing activities.  Homebased
work for women also account for self-employment in women workers and this forms
a bulk of women’s work in South Asia (ILO_WIEGO, 2013).
Apart from
manufacturing activities, increased global migration of women for work has also
given rise to increase employment of women in domestic work. It is common
knowledge that women from the countries of the global South travel across the
globe to serve as maids, cooks, nannies, housekeepers, etc. for affluent
households in the global North and Gulf countries. The latest conservative
estimates find the number of domestic workers increased from 33.2 million in
1995 to 52.6 million in 2010 – or 3.6 per cent of global wage
employment (ILO_WIEGO 2013). The State
of World Population 2006, UNFPA, reports almost half of 200 million international
migrants are women and girls. Domestic workers are an important part of this
growing trend. Asia is a large source of international migrants who work as
domestics. As of the mid-2000s, around 6.3 million Asian migrants were legally
living and working in the more developed Asian countries (UNFPA, 2006). The Gulf countries alone employ millions of
migrant domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia there are approximately 1.5 million
domestic workers (Human Rights Watch 2008) mostly migrated from Indonesia,
the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In Latin America, domestic workers (most women)
account for up to 60 per cent of internal and cross-border migrants. Young
women, in particular, migrate from rural areas to cities or from lower income
to higher income countries. Women migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin
America make up most of the domestic workforce in the USA (UNFPA, 2006),
accounting for 58 percent of workers in personal and related services in 2000.
Regional, country-specific
and more detailed, in-depth micro studies also reveal an array of activities in
which women remain gainfully employed. However certain features of women’s
employment have not ceased to exist.
The first and
foremost of these features are the ‘flexibility’ component associated with
women’s work. Apart from cases where women travel distances to work as domestic
helps, in most occupations, women engage in part-time activities, mostly
home-based, attempting to engage in both paid and unpaid work at the same time,
thus ending up working more hours in a day. In cases where women have migrated
as domestic helps, the working day never ends as most of the times it becomes a
24×7 job. The second universal feature of women’s work is related to wage
discrimination. For years women have fought for ‘equal pay for equal work’ yet
even now globally women receive only approximately 65 percent of men’s wages.
It is albeit better in the global North, specifically in Scandinavian
countries, where there are supporting legislations, but wage discrimination
across occupations and sectors remains a prominent feature of women’s work. The
third feature being women’s employment in low/un skilled, repetitive,
mechanical activities where there remain very low levels of intellectual
engagement and low or almost zero scope for any sort of intellectual
development. All these together form typical clusters of women’s employment in
certain set of occupations which again have strong resemblance with the work
that women perform within the household or used to perform in traditional
economies. Finally, women’s engagement in low productive sectors such as
agriculture, existed since history. While women of advanced capitalist
countries have been able to come out of it, not because there were special
efforts to pull out women, but there were efforts to transforming the society
from a agro-based to an industrial economy, which also acted in moving women
out. In the countries of the global south, specifically in Africa and the South
Asian sub continent, most women workers still remain engaged in agricultural
activities. Women’s employment in agriculture makes up almost 65
percent of the total women’s employment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia
and almost 40 percent in East and South-East Asia.
Therefore the
claim that the advance of capitalism has enabled women workers to come out of the
confines of their homes, which has altered the sexual division of labour and
altered the gender segregation of jobs is quite exaggerated. What one could
essentially claim is that the sites of exploitation and the forms of
discrimination have been altered. Women do face a double burden of oppression,
both at the household as well as at the site of production. Households themselves
have re-emerged as sites of production for exchange values, where women remain
engaged in both paid and unpaid work at the same time. Women workers have not
ceased to be looked upon as the ‘secondary earner’ within a family and the ‘male
breadwinner bias’ does feed into the wage discriminations that women face in
the labour markets, unless protected by strong legal backings, as mentioned
earlier. And finally women’s traditional skills as caretaker of the household
are also being marketed. While a set of women workers migrate as domestic helps
in households to free women of those households to participate in better and
perhaps newer forms of employment (the cumulative number being quite low), once
again the occupations created do not bring out women from their traditional
gender roles. Those who get employed as domestic helps do the similar household
chores, albeit in a paid form and those women whose labour are freed by the
domestic helps, often face segregation of occupations in the sector where they
remains engaged, whether as self-employed or wage-employed. In fact such an
organization of labour structures, intensify the rigidities of the division of
labour and consequently segregation of occupations.
It is also very
important to understand the role of women in reproduction. The existence of an
unpaid care economy in which women spend most of their productive abilities,
which is also vital for maintaining and raising the labour force, is posed as a
major constraint for women to participate in the paid work sphere. It has
always been highlighted that technological innovations have reduced the time
spent on women’s daily chores such as cooking, cleaning, caring for the old and
sick, which has helped more women to participate in income earning activities.
However, whether it has really been able to alter the division of labour still
remains doubtful. Most women still prefer part-time engagement in paid
activities, often working from home. Such arrangements often blur the lines
between paid and unpaid work performed by women.
Thus, the major
submission that I wish to make from all the above discussion is that while,
such forms of women’s employment, where women are exploited doubly, where
households are both sites of production for exchange values as well as
consumption, where lines of paid and unpaid activities blur, the process of
accumulation under the modified organisation of production, yields higher
levels of surplus. This is to say that keeping women confined to clusters of typical
occupations discussed earlier, and a simultaneous process of gendering certain
occupations, blurring the difference between paid and unpaid work, for example,
increased informalisation of the economy, has its own way of reorganising the
mode of production with a high profit motive.

Given this, the
drive for accumulating larger amount of profit would actually never initiate
the breakdown of the division of labor and thus would never lower the burden of
‘unpaid work’ for women. In fact under the neoliberal capitalist development,
there is no conflict between paid and unpaid work as till the time they
coexist, the profit motive gets fulfilled at the cost of exploiting women’s
labour, irrespective of it being paid or unpaid. There would be newer forms of
such exploitation which might further blur the lines between paid and unpaid
work but never fundamentally reduce or eliminate women’s unpaid work by
altering the division of labour and liberate women from their traditional roles.
This system thus would fail to be able to work for women’s emancipation in its
current form unless a process of overthrowing the system is in place.
Friedrich Engels, 1884.The
Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
ILO_Wiego, 2013.Women
and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, Second Edition
UNFPA, 2006.A Passage to Hope: Women and International Migration, State
of World Population
Mehra, R and S. Gammage, 1999.Trends, Countertrends and Gaps in
Women’sEmployment, World Development Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 533-550
Joekes, S and A. Weston, 1994.WomenandtheNewTradeAgenda, UNIFEM,NewYork
Human Rights
Watch, 2008.”As If I Am Not
Human”, Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia. Last
accessed from https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/07/07/if-i-am-not-human/abuses-against-asian-domestic-workers-saudi-arabia

author is Research Coordinator at Centre for Budget and Governance
Accountability, New Delhi