Assembly of Working People 2008: Women’s work, Unpaid labour and Regulation of Work

In discussing ‘women’s work’, we need to look at all forms of paid and unpaid work done by women, the nature of these forms and the reasons for low status, skill levels and wage inequalities.  Secondly, we need to go into the explanations of why we have a notion called ‘women’s work’, why is unpaid work not recognised as work, why is women’s paid work usually unskilled, low paying and in the Informal Sector? Why is it that women are seen as complementary earners within the family and as contingent workers in the workplace?


Feminist engagements have enriched the conceptual understanding of labour and highlighted the various ways in which all labour is gendered through patriarchies. The human body is a resource and has been used for various kinds of labour – intellectual, physical, reproductive and sexual. Women have been constantly excluded, degraded and undervalued in the first two categories while the latter two, i.e., reproductive and sexual have not even been acknowledged as any form of labour that can be materially compensated.


The range of labour that women perform is a spectrum that moves from utter devaluation at one extreme of several types of unpaid labour performed within the home and elsewhere, to the gendered but undervalued paid labour within the market at the other end. The unpaid labour that women perform includes cooking, cleaning, and care and nurture of children and older persons at their homes. The reason this labour is not valued is that it is seen as “women’s work”. Even when the same work is done by women as paid labour, be it as domestic workers or nurses, it is undervalued and underpaid. The notion of women’s work travels from the private domain to the public domain as well. In addition, women also perform both sexual and reproductive labour, be it without payment as wives and mothers, or as paid services in the case of sex workers and surrogate mothers. These sexual and reproductive labour are not only unvalued but also castigated as being immoral.


Several reasons account for the attribution of value to any labour: from who performs the labour, to where it is performed, to the level of skill/ strength (?) required. This in turn also influences the amount of wages paid. When it comes to manual work, that which is perceived to require “more strength” is valued more than that which is perceived to require less strength. Given that women are supposedly “weak”, it follows that women’s work will be valued much less than men’s work. While the discussions of gendering of labour and its devaluation occurs within the organised sector too, but it is the informal work structures and processes where a majority of women are employed that is the site for this discussion on the value of women’s labour.


Numerous instances of women doing low wage labour abound across sectors. The larger presence of women will also mean lower wages and an assumption of low skill levels. The garment sector is one such example, where the minimum wage for a highly skilled tailor is not more than Rs. 3500/- per month. Contrast this with the wage that a highly skilled machine operator will make in an industry which employs predominately male workers. Even within the garment sector, male workers who are often employed in the denim washing sections are paid more than tailors.


A similar situation operates in agriculture. Even in terms of minimum wages fixed, there is a difference between wages for ploughing that is traditionally a ‘male’ work, and that for transplanting that is  ‘women’s’ work . Both tasks are strenuous and require a high level of skills. There is no rational basis for different wage norms for these tasks.


Even in cases of intellectual work, from which women have traditionally been kept away, the bias continues. This is amply demonstrated by the controversy which erupted about a year back when the President of Harvard University made a remark about the lesser intelligence of women attributing it to their different biological makeup.


The structural reason in fixing wages for women lower than that of men has its basis in patriarchy, which essentially devalues women. Women have been viewed as supplementary wage earners, despite the fact that increasingly many families in the country are forced to survive on the single wage of a woman worker. Along with these, are the sectors where women have been traditionally employed, which are seen as inferior. Women are trained from childhood to survive on minimum requirements and hence in a sense are in a position to be exploited by paying less for the labour that they expend. Thus the socio-cultural factor which devalues women in their homes also helps the industry to exploit women with less wages.


While on the issue of devaluation of women’s work, the following factors may be worth considering. The first is that devaluation of work at home also leads to devaluation at the workplace. While women perform unpaid domestic work at home, for which they get little recognition, the same domestic work undertaken by a domestic help is bound to be devalued. By extrapolation, women’s work in other spheres of work, particularly in the informal sector would tend to be undervalued.


Second, we have a situation in the country, where a large section of women entering paid employment, outside agricultural work, are first generation workers. Many see this work as temporary, till they ‘get married and become homemakers’. Industry itself actively encourages this mindset, as in the case of the Tirupur garment industry, where under the ‘Sumangali’ scheme, women work to accumulate money for their dowry. As such, women do not even allow themselves to develop a working class perspective. This is an important issue for trade unions to address.


Another factor critical to evaluation of women’s work is the notion of ‘dignity’. We have already referred to sexual labour being castigated as immoral. There are various other forms of labour that are seen as lacking in dignity. These include domestic labour, municipal cleaning, unskilled work in construction, role of attendants, etc. These employments occupy the bottom of the work hierarchy, not only because they are low paid, but also because they are seen as lacking ‘dignity’. Consequently, it is women, and that too women from ‘backward castes’ from all religions, who are generally employed in these tasks. Their low position in the social hierarchy adds to their low bargaining power, thus ensuring that these employments are low paid.


The issue of women’s work and its undervaluation takes added urgency in the context of globalisation. One aspect of globalisation has been the extinguishing of “good” jobs, replaced by degraded, less paying jobs. In the context, woman workers in many instances become the principle wage earners in their families. Very often, what this does is to force more family members, including children, into the workplace. This also forces women to take on other forms of wage engagements to supplement the basic wage earned by them, often forcing them into labour that has ‘less dignity’.


The foregoing makes regulation of women’s work a very important issue to be addressed by trade unions. The two basic forms of regulation available to employment in the informal sector are the statutory Minimum Wage, and social security. We see first that many forms of women’s employment are not even covered under the schedule of employment for Minimum Wages. Second, even where the Minimum Wages Act is applicable, we see that the minimum wage applicable to traditional women’s work is lower than that for men. A glaring example is that of minimum wage in agriculture work. It is important to highlight here that trade union struggle has been able to get regulation of women’s employment in some specific instances. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, domestic work is now covered under the Minimum Wages Act, and is also included under the categories of employment for social security coverage through the state Welfare Boards.


This is the context in which this workshop on women’s paid and unpaid work is being conducted, to explore the above issues and bring to the fore further developments among them. The workshop will seek to look at different forms of labour that women perform, both paid and unpaid, in order to understand and discuss the connections between them. It will also seek to examine possible interventions by trade unions and autonomous women’s organisations that can strengthen organisation of women around work, and contribute to improved regulation of employment for women’s labour.


Akshara ● Saheli ● Forum Against Oppression of Women ● New Trade Union Initiative