Women's Unpaid Work: A Focus on India

It is a well- accepted and acknowledged fact that women disproportionately spend more time on unpaid work than men. In fact, women’s unpaid work has been branded as the ‘missing link’ [1] between the household and the economy. From cooking and cleaning, to taking care of children, the ill and the elderly, women carry out at least two and a half times more (60%) unpaid household and care work than men [2]. As a result, they have less time to engage in paid labour, or longer working hours, meaning that they are underrepresented in the workforce, particularly at senior levels. The problem with this imbalance is not only that women have less opportunity to participate in the formal economy, but that their unpaid work is consistently devalued and often unrecognised, despite the crucial role it plays in and for the functioning and wellbeing of society.


On average, across the globe, men spend 83 minutes a day on unpaid work, while women spend 265 minutes, more than three times that amount. In India, however, these figures are much more profound. Especially in a country where female labour force participation is extremely low, women spend 297 minutes per day on unpaid work, while men spend only 31 minutes [3]. Furthermore, when addressing different age groups, only 21.8% of women between the ages of 15 and 59 are engaged in paid work, compared to 70.8% of men in the same group [4].


Due to gendered social norms that view unpaid work and responsibilities as a female prerogative, women across different regions, socio- economic classes and cultures spend an important and substantial part of their day meeting the expectations of domestic and reproductive roles. For those that do paid work too, a ‘double burden’ is created (also known as the ‘second shift’, which alludes to the work that individuals must do to earn money, while also being responsible for a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic labour). The work that women do often subsidises the cost of care that is necessary to sustain their families, support economies and often, fill in for the lack of social services.


There has been a declining trend in India over the past decade in women’s paid work as more of this group move further into the domain of domestic duties. Like elsewhere in the world, and especially in South Asia, their unpaid work is characterised as being unofficial, invisible and thus, unrecognised within the economy. However, in a country of more than 1.3 billion, this number is much more acute. Just 22% of women are engaged in the formal workforce. Out of this number, 77% are associated with farming and other agricultural activities [5]. Not only does their work tend to be informal in nature, but they also lack both economic remuneration and social recognition.


Source: The Diplomat, 'India's Women Bear the Burden of Unpaid Work -- With Costs to Themselves and the Economy'


Furthermore, intersections of social status and geography also have a large influence on women’s paid and unpaid work. Research has found that women from a higher social class engage less in paid work, while men from the same category do less unpaid work. Similarly, women in both rural (93.2%) and urban (88.8%) parts of the country engage in more unpaid work than their male (29.2% and 22.5% respectively) counterparts [6].


Source: The Diplomat, 'India's Women Bear the Burden of Unpaid Work -- With Costs to Themselves and the Economy'


Women in India were also hit much harder by the Covid- 19 pandemic. Four out of every 10 women who had previously been working lost their jobs. At the same time, the amount of time women spent on unpaid work and family responsibilities increased by 30% [7]. As childcare centres continued to close down, their time on childcare had no choice but to rise, affecting both their paid (for those that did engage in formal labour) and unpaid work.


Overall, women’s unpaid work in India is both an aspect of economic activity, and something which contributes to the wellbeing of individuals, their families and wider society. Despite its importance within these dimensions, the practice itself is rarely recognised as ‘work’, which has been defined as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as an activity undertaken by an individual ‘for pay or profit for at least one hour during a given week. [8]’ Regardless, unpaid care and domestic work is valued to contribute around 11 trillion USD (or 9%) of global GDP. In India, unpaid work undertaken by women is valued to be worth almost 40% of GDP, a figure higher than both global manufacturing (16%) [9] and transportation (5%) [10] sectors. However, the devaluation of women’s unpaid work and its exclusion has led to the reinforcement of gendered division of paid and unpaid labour, something which has left Indian women wages and bargaining power in the household.


Women’s unpaid work is generally left out of policy agendas due to common misconceptions that it is difficult to measure and regulate, unlike standard market and formal work practices. On a personal level, this neglect also leads to incorrect interpretations around the levels and changes that exist within individual wellbeing and the value of time- or how much time is spent on different unpaid activities. This, in turn, has a knock- on effect on policy effectiveness across a wide range of socio- economic areas, notably gender inequalities within employment and domestic activities. Due to this incorrect information, policy is less likely to be successful in expanding the capabilities and choices that women can make, along with the ability to distribute unpaid work further unequally; their rights to freedom and empowerment (in any form- economic, social, political, etc) are constantly violated.


How Can Women’s Unpaid Work in India be Addressed through Government Policy


A 2019 Report by the IMF [11] addressed policy measures that can be adopted to reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid work.


Infrastructure

Governments can relieve the burden of unpaid work by investing in appropriate infrastructure and public services. These include water and sanitation systems, electricity and transport, all of which are critical in developing countries such as India. This will also allow women to spend less time doing ‘low productivity tasks’ (such as collecting water, etc), and more time working in formal environments. The provision of adequate infrastructural services is also important to ensure that women can travel to and from work safely, something which will also maximise their human capital capabilities. Similar investments in education equality narrows gender gaps in the formal economy and provides an opportunity to educate on key gender equality topics and why it is important to share the responsibility of unpaid, domestic work.


Institutions

Labour market programmes and institutions can have a large effect in determining how much unpaid work is undertaken in households. Tax policies have a direct effect on individual incentives to participate in the labour market, along with the labour demand by affecting labour costs. Active labour market policies can support job applicants (especially women) to find meaningful employment that works around their unpaid duties and ensure women feel empowered to communicate their working needs to their employer.


How Can Women’s Unpaid Work in India be Addressed by Businesses?

Commit: Strengthen existing corporate commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment with a direct ambition to help reduce and redistribute responsibility for unpaid care work.


Act: Take action on women’s unpaid work through implementing policies. These could be flexible work arrangements, decent work and social protection, and steps to ensure that women (who have unpaid work responsibilities) have the same access to higher positions as other workers. Similarly, high gender pay gaps may act as a disincentive to take part in paid work and so taking action towards equal pay for equal work can help to address gender imbalances.


Advocate: Collaborate with other companies, industry associations, government and even civil society to collect evidence and resources for policy- level change. Partner with and support NGOs and social enterprises specialising in gender equality to show broader commitment to gender equality and ensure company actions and messaging are informed by expert knowledge.



Written by Harkiran Bharij, Thrive Research Hub Member