Why We Need to Talk About Unpaid Labour

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O P I N I O N – G E N D E R  &  S O C I E T Y

Muntasir Mansur

Rodela Akhtar* has been working in a company for two years now and has recently got married. Now, she has to attend her 9-5 job on weekdays. When she comes back home, she has to work three hours straight to do all the household chores. Upon being asked whether her husband helps her or not, she replied with a disappointed face, “He says that he works hard in the office and he gets exhausted. He throws a temper tantrum if I ask him for help.”

This is a mere fraction of the stories of countless women in our society women suffering from a lack of recognition in the unpaid labour section. Such “care work” without any financial or social recognition raises severe questions about unpaid labour and how much it costs our women.

Why is it essential to recognise unpaid labour?

The Victorian notion that women are “naturally” inclined to motherhood and home, while men are “naturally” destined to govern, conquer, and work outside — institutionalised low female wages. Setting women’s work at a lower value than men’s is not merely a characteristic of our society it has occurred in all human cultures for which records exist. Throughout history, it was typical to devalue women’s contribution to unpaid labour. Now, it has reached a point that care work is something that we take for granted, considering unpaid labour not “real work”.

One of the main issues with the term “working women” is, it only applies to women whose work creates wealth and contributes to the GDP at the end of each fiscal year. If the amount of unpaid labour of Bangladeshi women was measured, the valuation could amount to over 80% of the Bangladeshi GDP in the fiscal year 2013-2014, according to a policy brief by CPD BD. It is important to recognise this huge amount of work, which has no valuation in the current standards because each year we are losing a big workforce that could potentially boost our economy as a whole.

Also, in terms of the gender gap, it is evident how unpaid labour is obstructing women to empower themselves. In terms of working-class women living in the countryside, it is safe to say that they face countless hurdles, such as poverty, domestic abuse, restrictions to education, and religious dogmatism. The prevalence of unpaid labour raises the magnitude to an even higher level.

Moreover, the situation of urban middle-class women is miserable when it comes to doing unpaid work. There are a lot of women who, despite having obtained the highest academic degrees from reputed public universities, could not enter the job market, or in cases where they did join a job, could not continue with it only because there was no one in the family to take care of the child(ren). When it came to leaving the job for the sake of child(ren), it is always the women who had to compromise even if both partners’ monthly income was more or less similar.

Banasree Mitra, Gender Advisor, Manusher Jonno Foundation said,

“The difficulty of engaging in unpaid care work is directly linked to levels of poverty, domestic violence, and barriers towards women’s empowerment. Besides, the unequal care burden curtails the enjoyment of women’s and girls’ human rights, including their right to education, paid job, work, social security, and participation, as well as their rest, recreation, and leisure.”

How can we recognise unpaid labour?

By now, it is safe to say that women’s unpaid labour should be recognised in some way. In the context of SDG under goal five, the recognition and valuation of unpaid labours should, thereby, provide public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies. It is always challenging to impose such policies because of the weak social infrastructure in the south Asian region. 

Including their work as part of GDP would be a great way but the standard economy does not recognise such work. In this regard, Shaheen Anam, Executive Director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, is presently campaigning to include women’s unaccounted work in the GDP. The outcomes might bring about a sense of recognition of women’s contributions, a change in perception about women from a negative to a positive one which, in return, may accord them a higher status in the family, community, and ultimately reduce violence and discrimination against them. 

This is all but an easy task as the SNA is standardised and economists have not yet found a way to monetise women’s unpaid work. However, suggestions incline towards using the satellite accounting system which many countries are using and demonstrating the economic value of women’s unaccounted work.

Setting up a payment method will always be a great way to recognise unpaid labours. The government can pay a certain amount of remuneration or create a social safety net through taxation. Husbands could share a portion of their income with their homemaker. But it could backfire by harming the equality principles as the notion of men as the provider will fossilise in the patriarchal status quo. 

The number of women participating in paid labour would decrease drastically as women would then be enforced to take homemaker roles, which would inevitably increase gender stereotyping women as homemakers. Another issue is that even if we solve the payment method, there are always concerns regarding the class difference — will the working-class family’s homemakers get the same payment as the homemakers of a privileged class?

According to Meher Afroz Chumki, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs, it would be challenging to ensure payment for unpaid care work, and other avenues need to be pursued instead.

“We are working to build awareness so that men are also motivated to take part in care work. Alongside that, we are trying to involve these women in various paid jobs, so that if they choose, they can earn a salary from home. We have started an income-generating project that will give 20 million women training in 18 different trades.”

She also added how the Ministry is working to establish daycare centres at workplaces and has already built 98 of them.

“We are also trying to formalise some of this care work, so that services for children, cooking, cleaning etc can eventually become paid work. We are trying to create a policy on this, so that when women start earning from this care work, they will also have a level of financial independence and have a greater voice within the household.”

Another concern from the conservative side regarding pay for homemakers is that it will create problems between traditional family values and create distance between families as there is a monetary transaction involved. 

On that point, Humaira Aziz, Director, Women and Girls Empowerment, Care Bangladesh said,

“Many believe that such changes could lead to rifts between spouses, but undeniably, progress in such areas are vital for the well-being of women in our society. Stay-at-home wives, who can earn from devoting their skills to various industries, need to be compensated for their commitment to household obligations through the help of linked policies.”

More practice of shared responsibilities of the household can significantly ameliorate the situation. In Scandinavian countries such as Norway or Sweden, the gender gap is lowest in unpaid labours. Since working long hours are legally limited by these governments (37.5 hours contrary to other European countries), domestic responsibilities are shared more equally according to a study by the OECD.

Ultimately, the main focus should rely on the importance of the recognition of all these unpaid labours. For women to break out the shackles of patriarchy, they need economic independence and recognition of their hard labour.


Muntasir dances to electro pop like a robot from 1984. Get in touch with him at [email protected] 


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