Woman wins pay for five years of housework

Taken for granted: Unpaid domestic labour is a key driver of gender inequality around the world.

Should housework be paid work? A Chinese woman has been granted compensation in her divorce for care work. The ruling has sparked a discussion that echoes a longstanding feminist demand.

It was an ordinary, private story. After five years of marriage, a Chinese couple, surnamed Wang and Chen, began the painful process of getting divorced. But when the judge made his ruling, the personal became political.

Chen was ordered to pay compensation to Wang for the unpaid labour of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing that she had contributed to the marriage. This compensation came to roughly £5,400.

The pay-out has caused a stir in China and further afield. It sets a new precedent in Chinese law, but it also speaks to a sense of injustice many feel about the burden of domestic labour that falls on women.

Ninety-four per cent of respondents to an online poll on a Chinese news site said that it was right to award money, but that the amount was too stingy. One Weibo user pointed out that the payment was less than the annual salary for a nanny.

On average, women around the world spend 60% more time doing unpaid care work than men. A 2020 report by Oxfam found that women perform 12.5 billion hours of unpaid work every day.

When you add paid and unpaid work together, the average woman does six weeks more work each year than the average man.

Many believe that this work should be compensated. A campaign which started in the 1970s demanding that housework be properly paid has been growing.

At first, these calls were dismissed, but over time they have helped break down a view of women as the “angel in the house”, selflessly scrubbing the dirt away.

It is not only in China that the law has listened to these arguments. In Argentina, in 2019, a divorce court ordered a man to pay his ex-wife $179,000 for her 27 years of housework.

These legal victories, however, are smaller in scale than the original vision of the International Campaign for Wages for Housework.

The movement’s leading figures argued that the unpaid labour of women does not just benefit the man who cannot iron or will not change a nappy. They claimed that this unpaid labour underpinned all of society.

Take the example of a man who works in a factory. He needs to be fed, to have clean clothes and still have time to rest; his children need to be looked after by someone. If his housework is being done for free by his wife, then his wages do not need to be as high. His employer can make more profit, and the consumer need not pay as much for the goods from this factory.

The Oxfam report estimates the total value of women’s unpaid care work at $10.8tn per year. Global GDP is $87tn. Some argue that there would have to be huge changes in the world economy if this work were to be paid for.

During their divorce, Wang said that her husband “didn’t care about or participate in any kind of chores”. Putting a price on housework may make more men like him care about the sexist division of labour.

So, should housework be paid work?

Home economics

No, say some. Wages for housework would make personal relationships all about money. While domestic work should be shared more equally, marriage and family should not be turned into a transaction. This might even reinforce gender inequality in households, presenting a male primary breadwinner as a boss supervising the labour of his subordinate.

Yes, say others. The demand for wages for housework gives people a language to talk about exploitation that is already happening. Paying for housework would ensure that women’s work is acknowledged. It could grant workers in the home financial independence, or even lead to a radical overhaul of the gendered structure of society.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather do chores or pay your parents back for this work when you grow up?
  2. If one member of a couple has a higher salary does that mean they should pay the lower earner to do the housework?

Activities

  1. Design a campaign poster for Wages for Housework. Research some similar campaign art, such as the suffrage campaign, as an inspiration. Include facts from this article and elsewhere that you think best support the campaign.
  2. Imagine that you are a divorce lawyer and a man comes to you saying that he wants to sue his ex-wife for compensation because she performed inadequate housework. Write a response either explaining how you would make his case, or why you would refuse to.

Some People Say...

“They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.”

Silvia Federici (1942 – ), Italian feminist, and the author of Wages against Housework

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that women’s work is often devalued. Even inside the formal economy, there is a large gap between men and women’s earnings. Although it is illegal in the UK to pay men and women less for the same work, a variety of factors, which are often related to the distribution of unpaid care work, mean that women on average earn less than men in most industries. In 2018, the UK’s aggregate gender pay gap was 8.6%.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns the limits to what should be thought of as economic activity. Some campaigners have argued that bearing children should be seen as reproductive labour, while others have argued that certain kinds of personal interaction can be seen as “emotional labour”. They claim these constitute forms of work that could or should be paid for. Others argue that such framings contribute to a less caring and more selfish society.

Word Watch

Personal became political
“The personal is political” is a feminist slogan popularised in the 1970s.
Precedent
In law this means a decision which the courts must follow when judging future cases.
Stingy
Ungenerous or inadequate.
Weibo
Short for Sina Weibo, a large social media site. This is sometimes seen as China’s answer to Twitter, which is banned on the Chinese mainland.
Care work
This is all work done in order to care for other human beings, including cooking, cleaning and childcare.
Angel in the house
The title of a long poem by the Victorian poet and scholar Coventry Patmore. The phrase became associated with oppressive stereotypes about selfless women because of an essay by the writer Virginia Woolf.
Campaign for Wages for Housework
This began in 1972 and is credited to the American feminist Selma James, who lived and worked in the UK when she started the campaign, but the movement quickly spread around the world.
GDP
Gross Domestic Product. This is a measure of the total value of all the goods and services produced in a year.
Subordinate
In a work setting, somebody who is lower in rank or position.

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