india

Woman’s work

Tamil Nadu parties’ poll promise of wages for domestic chores has a regressive ring to it.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu appear to have discovered a new constituency to woo — homemakers. First mooted by Kamal Haasan of the Makkal Needhi Maiam in January, the promise to pay monthly wages to homemakers has now found its way into the manifestoes of the DMK and the AIADMK, the state’s two main political parties.

It is welcome that political parties agree that domestic chores need to be considered as work, a fact seldom acknowledged by society. But the proposal needs to be read against the backdrop of a declining female labour force participation (FLFP) rate. Between 1990 and 2019, India’s FLFP rate slipped from 30.28 per cent to 20.52 per cent, the lowest in the subcontinent and comparable to countries like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria. There are complex social reasons for this trend — a positive factor would be that more women are pursuing education for longer now than they used to some decades ago. But the overwhelming evidence suggests that structural constraints and social prejudices are also forcing women, with and without education, to stay out of or retreat from joining the formal and informal workforce. Statistics reveal that unemployment is higher among women compared to men, and that more women lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of a deeper conversation on the relationship between women and the labour market, the offer of wages for domestic work could end up reinforcing the stereotype of the woman as the “natural” homemaker, encourage fetishisation of domestic chores, and serve as an incentive for her to stay within the confines of home.

It is telling that AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami framed this poll promise as a “gift” to women — its logic stems from populist politics, not any emancipatory political imagination. Both the DMK and AIADMK have in recent years sought to woo women voters with freebies such as mixer-grinders (ostensibly to lessen the burden of house work) while ignoring pressing issues such as pay parity and safety at the workplace. Periyar and the Dravidian Movement placed gender equality and rights at the centre of self-respect politics. In that schema, domestic chores were to be shared by the man and woman, not to be monetised and reserved for the woman. Tamil Nadu political parties could do better to propose policies that enable more women to join the labour force and assure them of a supportive environment and equal opportunities at work.

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