Tuesday, 19 April 2011

wages for housework

i was directed to this article by silvia federici, which discusses the concept of paying wages for housework, and other issues around the structure of society. it's quite dated now, and i think feminists have been grappling with some of the issues she accuses them of ignoring for some time now. it's a pretty long piece, but i do like the points she puts in favour of wages for housework.

anyway, here is an excerpt:

We believed that the women’s movement should not set models to which women would have to conform, but rather devise strategies to expand our possibilities. For once getting a job is considered necessary to our liberation the woman who refuses to exchange her work in a kitchen for work in a factory is inevitably branded as backward and, beside being ignored, her problems are turned into her own fault. It is likely that many women who were later mobilized by the New Moral Majority could have been won to the movement if it had addressed their needs. Often when an article appeared about our campaign, or we were invited to talk on a radio program, we received dozens of letters by women who would tell us about their lives or at times would simply write: “Dear Sir, tell me what I have to do to get wages for housework.” Their stories were always the same. They worked like slaves with no time left and no money of their own. And there were older women starving on Supplementary Security Income (SSI) who would ask us whether they could keep a cat, because they were afraid that if the social worker found out their benefits would be cut. What did the women’s movement have to offer to these women? Go out and get a job so that you can join the struggles of the working class? But their problem was that they already worked too much, and eight hours at a cash register or on an assembly line is hardly an enticing proposition when you have to juggle it with a husband and kids at home. As we so often repeated, what we need is more time, more money, not more work. And we need daycare centers, but not just to be liberated for more work, but to be able to take a walk, talk to our friends or go to a women’s meeting.

Wages for housework meant opening a struggle directly on the question of reproduction, and establishing that raising children and taking care of people is a social responsibility. In a future society free from exploitation we will decide how this social responsibility is best absolved and shared among us. In this society where money governs all our relations, to ask for social responsibility is to ask that those who benefit from housework (business and the state as the “collective capitalist”) pay for it. Otherwise we subscribe to the myth-so costly for us women - that raising children and servicing those who work is a private, individual matter and that only “male culture” is to blame for the stifling ways in which we live, love and congregate with each other. Unfortunately the women’s movement has largely ignored the question of reproduction, or offered only individual solutions, like sharing the housework, which do not provide an alternative to the isolated battles many of us have already been waging. Even during the struggle for abortion most feminists fought just for the right not to have children, though this is only one side of control over our bodies and reproductive choice. What if we want to have children but cannot afford to raise them, except at the price of not having any time for ourselves and being continuously plagued by financial worries? For as long as housework goes unpaid, there will be no incentives to provide the social services necessary to reduce our work, as proved by the fact that, despite a strong women’s movement, subsidized day care has been steadily reduced through the 70s.


Cactus Kate said...

Hmm...wages for housework or half his assets on divorce?

Women already are paid for their housework, the 50:50 rule when splitting.

Julie said...

That somewhat implies that the only way women get paid for housework is to divorce, Cactus. Pretty sure that's not what you mean?

Carol said...

Yes, the "wages for housework" issue is problematic, and one that, in my experience has been debated by feminists for decades. I don't think it's been ignored by feminists, but its difficult to provide a solution within our existing economic structure. A woman shouldn't have to wait until she gets divorced to get some recompense for her housework. (Not sure how that happens in practice, but in principle it seems a compromise solution).

Marilyn Waring has focused a lot of her research on highlighting the importance of women's unpaid work to the economy, using international examples, and including housework as one of the forms of unpaid work. While most mainstream economists ignore this, I don't know how an adequate solution can be found.

It wasn't so much feminists that pressured women to enter paid work to be liberated. In the 70s there were wider shifts in the economic and occupational/production sector that made it more necessary for women to work. This became necessary for a family to particitpate in the intensification of consumerism. Also the casualisation of the workforce in that period tended to result in a lot of encouragement from the-powers-that-be to take up relatively low paid, insecure work; work less attractive to many men looking for a fulltime wage.

Feminists usually have supported a woman's right to choose to focus on housework and motherhood, or to seek paid work outside the home. But our society continues to downgrade housework and motherhood, and under-rate its value to the economy and society.

stargazer said...

thanx carol. i agree the issue is complicated, but in the full piece the author does talk about the fact that this is almost impossible to do given the current economic set-up & the way we value things. in talking about wages for housework, she's actually talking about some fundamental changes to the way we view & value work, and the way we structure the economy. i'm sure a solution can be found, it just depends on how much we are willing to change. an yeah, i didn't think her criticisms of feminism were all that fair, but still thought it was worth sharing.

and a message for anon troll: dude, you are so boring with your childish insults. if this is the way you get your rocks off, then i feel very sorry for you & not the slightest bit intimidated. really, you need to get out more, enjoy life, and try to work through all that hatred & bitterness you have seething inside you. you'll feel a lot better for it, i promise.

Psycho Milt said...

When this comes in, could you arrange it so we get wages for washing and brushing our teeth, too? I got to be gettin' some money or somethin' for that, right?

stargazer said...

uh no dude. you'd actually have to be doing something for someone else. just like all other wages. didn't think it was a difficult concept.

Hugh said...

The thing is, not all housework does involve doing something for somebody else. The author appears to conflate "housework" with "raising children". It's hard to see how a single woman vacuuming her apartment is benefiting anybody other than herself. Perhaps if it was "wages for childrearing" it wouldn't provoke the sort of objection Milt raises.

stargazer said...

except it isn't just children. it's all the other people living in the house. i suggest you read the whole article and you'll see she isn't conflating anything with anything. also, you have to take it in the context of the time it was written - around 1984 i believe. a time when women were certainly doing a lot more unpaid labour & a lot less paid work, and much less likely to be living alone. it's about giving that unpaid work value, because it does contribute to the economy. anyway, read the whole piece which explains the issues quite well.

Psycho Milt said...

In my experience, other people can be quite insistent that you wash yourself and brush your teeth, but they never offer to pay you to do it...

What are we actually talking about paying people for, here? No-one's going to give me money to clean my own house, and I'm certainly not cleaning someone else's house unless they hand over cash, so we're actually considering a fairly specific situation in which a stay-home spouse isn't in employment so doesn't get paid for the work they do.

In that case, as you've pointed out, they're doing something for someone else, ie for the spouse who works outside the home. Which means: any wages owed are owed by one marital partner to the other (see CK's comment above). I'm seeing a zero-sum game here.

You can attempt, as Federici does, to leverage the benefit to society from the stay-home spouse's work, but it doesn't really hold up - "society" continues to exist regardless of whether you do the vacuuming today or not, and doesn't owe you a bean for it. And raising children is not an unalloyed social good - ie, paying people to contribute to the planet's overpopulation is so obviously a bad idea I can't believe anyone actually promotes it.

Hugh said...

Well I've read it and I'm still not clear on the whole wages for housework thing. My principal objection is that, in what we might call the "classic" scenario, the women is sharing a household with a single man who doesn't do any housework. The man benefits from her housework because he gets to live in a nice tidy house, get his meals made, etc etc. The man's employer benefits because the woman's housework makes the man able to get into work and be productive.

If the state starts paying for housework then the woman is able to access all the benefits that Federici identifies. But arguably the man and the man's employer benefit just as much or even more. The woman is receiving something in the form of wages, but she has to work for it. The man and his employer benefit but they don't have to do anything for it.

I see Federici points out that ideally the wages would be paid for by "those who benefit from housework
(business and the state as the “collective capitalist”)". That leaves out the rather personal benefit that the man receives. She described it as "care" work but to me we need to draw a distinction between care work that's done for those who are for some reason incapable of caring for themselves, like the elderly, the young or the disabled, and those who are capable of caring for themselves but choose not to. Frankly, I can't see any incentive for a man to share household chores in this situation.

Carol said...

Hugh, I think it's covered more by Marilyn Waring's focus on the (ulitmately economic) benefits to society of unpaid work. As you imply, society benefits one way or another from the housework being done. These things need to be done by or for us, in order for society to function well, and consequently they are part of the economy. I do most of them for myself, others pay people to do those things.

If the housework isn't done by or for each of us, then we become a social problem and, most often, it's attended to by workers paid out of tax payer money. If I don't feed, cloth and organise to live in a reasonably hygenic living space, I will cause problems for others, and it will be difficult for me to participate in paid work, and many other aspects of society.

I don't think anyone should be coerced into doing the housework for others, without sufficient recompense.

Story of O said...

If Women wish to be paid for doing housework won't Men expect the same for doing all the outdoor stuff about the house they do? Most relationships would balance out making this issue redundant.

katy said...

Interesting to think how this discussion fits into the modern context. In the US in 2010 women became more than half of the workforce, ie, the majority of US workers are now women. From http://www.economist.com/node/15174489?story_id=15174489: "In the European Union women have filled 6m of the 8m new jobs created since 2000. In America three out of four people thrown out of work since the “mancession” began have been male. And the shift towards women is likely to continue: by 2011 there will be 2.6m more female than male university students in America."

With this in mind it seems to me that supporting women in work (ie, good quality childcare) is a more important issue for women now, particularly for rich women/women in the rich world.

stargazer said...

i think it needs to be more than that katy. quality child care will apply while a woman is at work, when the issue is a more equal sharing of the burden at home. and it also doesn't address the issue of other unpaid work in the home, because the quality childcare tends to be outside the home. nor does it address the issue of who is going to take responsibility for dropping off & picking up the kids, and who is going to stay home when one of the children is sick. in fact, it's a very nice way of side-stepping the whole issue, which was one of the points the author makes.

which is not to say that i don't support the provision of quality childcare - i absolutely do. it just doesn't address the issues.

Psycho Milt said...

in fact, it's a very nice way of side-stepping the whole issue, which was one of the points the author makes.

I'd say discussion of wages for housework is another nice way of sidestepping the whole issue - attempting to make it about "society" and "capitalism" when it's actually about women and their husbands.

katy said...

stargazer, from what I understand of the wages of housework debate one of the initial issues to be addressed was what you might call redistribution of wealth. If more women are indeed now in the paid workforce than were a generation ago (the article largely credits this to the rise of the service sector, the decline of manufacturing and of course the contraceptive pill) then I just wonder how central the wages for housework debate (which was very important at one point) still is.

Interestingly it seems that the gender pay gap now is more about mothers; apparently women who don't have children have careers very similar to those of men in terms of salary etc, whereas there is still a big gap between work opportunities for mothers and non-mothers (male and female).

Carol said...

I think the issue these days is about how to incorporate the value to the economy and society of unpaid work into statistics and policy formation. Marilyn Waring has done a lot of work on this, showing that women do far more of society's unpaid work than men.

There's some stuff on the issue here:

Anonymous said...

Katy, you may believe the gender wage gap only effects mothers but this is not all true. Are you basing your assumption that "women who don't have children have careers very similar to those of men in terms of salary" on evidence or hearsay? This is one report that suggests otherwise:


Moz said...

I do wonder whether "wages for housework" doesn't just invite a huge invasion of the state into homes. And whether anyone would actually take up the offer to provide a safe working environment, sick leave, maximum hours and all the other stuff that goes with a workplace. I suspect the compliance costs would so far outweigh the benefits that it wouldn't be worth while even for the richest households.

Look at Australia where the equal pay for care work case has led the (Labour) government to say they won't pay for it. http://www.smh.com.au/national/gillard-intervenes-in-equal-pay-case-20101214-18wwf.html Or maybe they will. Or the NZ case where care workers were getting way below minimum wage for overnight shifts.

One benefit of this, though, would be the huge gain in tax income and reduction in other forms of welfare. With a couple of hundred dollars a week for housework income for almost everyone there'd be no-one left DPB or many other benefits. And so much currently unpaid work would be taxable (without any offset in tax-deductable expenses, since personal care is not deductable) that we could probably afford to drop another few percent off the top tax rate. The money would, as always, come from those who earn just enough to cover the extra cost of paying for services they get for free now.

I think most couples would end up in this situation: he has to pay her an extra $10/hr times 20 hours a week out of his after tax income. The tax office gets 30% of that because it's secondary employment and she gets the rest. Then they look at their joint income and see that they're a lot better off if she doesn't "housework". So they tell the tax office that they split the housework equally.

stargazer said...

nice, moz. i think a financial incentive to share the work was one of the reasons behind this proposal & you put it very well.

katy said...

PJ, I didn't mean to imply that the gender pay gap only affects mothers but I do think that they are affected disproportionately. I have read about this issue quite a bit including in relation to my Masters research. The link you posted seems to support the point I was trying to make about work opportunities being influenced (limited) by caring for children. Quotes below are from the summary.

"Women are three times as likely as men to work part-time – 36 percent compared with 12 percent.
Women are most likely to work part-time as young adults, around retirement age and at ages when they are likely to be raising children."

"Women’s income from all employment types can be seen to have a strong relationship to age, reflecting the stages of childbearing and childrearing. Women’s earning life-cycle reaches two peaks, the first at 25 to 29 years ($20,900), and the second at 45 to 49 years when incomes are at their highest ($22,000)."

"Differences in men’s and women’s median incomes were greater for those who had attained a higher degree than for those with lower-level qualifications. This is because the skilled workforce has more opportunity for career
progression and advancement. The greater likelihood of women taking time out (eg for care giving) impacts on their income potential in comparison to men."

Anonymous said...

Katy, none of what you quoted supports your idea that "women who don't have children have careers very similar to those of men". Yes, women with children have it bad. This isn't what I was disagreeing with. I would like to see what you were basing this statement on.


SPC said...

Possibly recognition of unpaid work could come through the competing idea that those partners not in paid work receive a social wage payment.

However this will mean work testing with exceptions. Exceptions for caring for children (note the relevance to the new proposed DPB regime) and various forms of unpaid work of recognised value.

This provides a more universal form of provision that that given in targeted form within WFF.

katy said...

PJ, this idea is discussed in the Economist article I posted a link to in my first comment.