No rest for the homemakers | The Daily Star

May Day Special

No rest for the homemakers

Iris FarinaMay 01, 2018

Around the world, the first of May holds cultural significance as well as the universal context of being the International Workers' Day. You may not need a refresher on the historical background but on this day, today, just about every place you know around town, is shut. This is not a holiday where you can hang around in markets or hit your favourite restaurant-- everyone has a day off.


Yet, there is one kind of work that does not cease; housework.

Many cringe at this seemingly harmless word. And with that feeling of disgust comes utter disrespect for those to take the burden of doing it. While you can justify that you pay your household help, how do you get by when you look down on homemakers who do this for free?

May Day and the holiday that comes with are not for the homemakers. The 8-hour work week does not apply to them; there is no weekend, no casual leave and no sign of a vacation. You can leave your job, even change your career path at the slightest feeling of being underpaid and overworked, but no chance of that if you are a homemaker. The worse part of this whole situation is that the homemakers are our mothers, daughters, wives and sisters --all women-- all undervalued.

It is not like one day there was a very important meeting which ruled that women must do ALL housework even if they want to opt for a career. The System of National Accounts or SNA tells a different story though. Introduced in 1953, this helpful compilation system of standardised national accounts takes in annual data for gross product, investment, capital transactions, government expenditure and foreign trade. What it leaves out or does not count as part of the system (called non-SNA activities), among many other things, is the intrinsic value of unpaid labour, specifically housework and other such must-do activities. Since the SNA is maintained by the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank, it has been adapted as a standard across countries over the last half century.

Manusher Jonno Foundation, from their campaign Equality through Dignity, has transposed this exclusion into Bangladesh's context by publishing striking figures in February 2018.

The time spent by a woman (aged 15 years and above) on non-SNA works is about three times higher compared to men (aged 15 years and above).

On an average, a female person works about 7.7 hours on non-SNA activities on a typical day; in contrast a male person works about 2.5 hours. This pattern is similar in both rural and urban areas.

To make this more tangible, the hours are further calculated as GDP percentage. Based on replacement cost (the shadow wage for similar type of work method), the estimated value of women's unpaid non-SNA (household) works was equivalent to 76.8 percent of GDP in 2013-14.

Sadly, the statistics and the jargon bury the key message. It is not easy for a homemaker to fully grasp the concept of this roundabout way of counting. It is a backhanded approach to evaluate housework based on the monthly wages paid to the household help. It gets even worse in the rural households where the women folk continue their work even off field while the men enjoy a well-deserved break.

It holds little value to the mother who has to come from her daily 9-to-5 work schedule, take care of her children and chauffeur them around to their after-school coaching, and then supervise the housework. In most houses, there is bound to be an ailing elderly person, and it is the woman of the house who has to take care of them. Very few households see the man of the house doing something to reduce this immense pressure. The underpaid, unaccounted work is simply unevenly distributed between women and men.

Yet, the statistics and figures are essential. The irony of it lies in the matter that adding a monetary value to any activity is looked down upon. Then again, without adding a monetary value to an activity, no matter how small, nullifies its presence from the GDP. Housework or any other unpaid work done for a household - is it better to acknowledge that it has intangible infinite value and be cut out from calculations?

Or is it better to value those at the wages generally paid to the help? 

When it comes to national policy making and awareness, the path is murky and filled with any and all obstacles imaginable. Women are already subjected to an astounding amount of bias and social oppression in physical, verbal and psychological forms. Adding this particular issue needs to be addressed in both socio-economic and financial context.

While considering households, let us not forget the cases where the woman of the house, although a homemaker, does little to nothing in particular regarding housework or child rearing. Again, there remains the question of identifying the hours of multitasking where a woman is bound to take care of cooking, cleaning and taking care of her child. Adding the monetary value and addressing the extra hours which women spend compared to their male counterparts is only the beginning. Women empowerment lies hand in hand with financial power and it is high time to acknowledge the unpaid activities as solid savings to a family.

Western corporate culture has become our bread and butter for a fast track career route. The business attire, the corporate talk, the executive meetings are all being integrated into our service sector. Why not take up some of the positive Western household customs as well? What can be so very wrong if the husband has to do his share of cleaning the living room floor? Will the fabric of society crumble if the eldest son of the house does the dishes every alternate day? And it is not a matter of just giving the wife some 'pocket money' which can lessen the severity of the issue.

Women are mentioned more and more because the short end of the stick of not considering housework from the beginning falls on the women. Their housework is ultimately 'equated' to the unemployed, the beggars and other non-contributing organisms in the society. A day, or week or even months cannot change this societal mindset. If you consider yourself a functional adult, then stand with the homemaker in your home, for she has no one but herself to stand with.

Photo: LS Archive/Sazzad Ibne Sayed

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