Thursday, August 6, 2015

Women’s Paid and Unpaid Work: Some Reflections

Sona Mitra

It is generally and quite correctly argued that within an economy, women’s work participation is determined by several factors such as age, education level, skill levels, wages, household income level, marital status and several other economic, socio-political and cultural factors. However, while these do determine the necessary conditions for women to enter the workforce, that is mostly the supply side factors of women’s employment, the issue of whether women workers are able to participate in ‘gainful economic activities’ depends greatly on the degree of women’s access to the labour markets.

As the site of production shifted away from the household, women were required to play a much more central role in reproduction as increases in agricultural productivity also led to an increase in the demand for labour and women were confined to rigid reproductive roles more than ever. There are also many other historical documentation which shows us that women have ingeniously been stereotyped as a caretaker of the economy, slowly and gradually pushing her into the ‘unpaid care economy’, which for a long time, kept women preoccupied in the reproductive economy, without acknowledging the huge contributions that she simultaneously made to the productive economy.

These changes obviously took over thousands of years to come into effect. While the above is also a much generalized way to present the rigidities in women’s role, it of course was different across civilizations, continents, regions and societies. However, that private property and development of capitalism altered the gender relations of a society, is an argument that has been substantiated several times in the accounts of Marxist feminist scholars.  It has also been more or less accepted by the feminists that the ‘family’ in its nuclear form has been a major site for the subjugation of women where roles of men and women are defined rigidly.

Thus while this creates a barrier to the entry of women into the labour markets, there also exists the contestations for this argument where it is often claimed that the advance of capitalism has broken new grounds for women’s empowerment. Women have been pushed out of the confines of the households to take up gainful employment which has helped in the emancipation of women. Undoubtedly, with the advance of capitalism, women have come to play an important role in the sphere of labour markets. During the period of industrial revolution, women had participated in large numbers in the process. In the period of post war reconstruction period, there were several types of home based activities that had emerged where women would participate to earn additional incomes for the households, while they were also being pushed out of the factories to make space for their male counterparts.

In the last few decades, in the emerging form of globalisation, re-emergence of free markets, removal of tariff barriers, ushering in of free trade agreements, women in developing countries have come to play a very important role. This kind of globalised world has definitely created newer avenues for women’s employment. In the entire global south at some period or other export-oriented employment in the factories saw a substantialrise in the rate of growth of women’s employment. During 1970s to 1990s ,Mehra and Gammage (1999) have shown that economic activity among women increased in all regions except Sub-Saharan Africa and East and South-East Asia. In the latter two Asian regions, they were already high. Large increases occurred in countries that adopted export-oriented development strategies, and especially those that set up Export Processing Zones (EPZs), where women comprise on average about 70 percent of the labor force(JoekesandWeston,1994).

However, economic crisis in the developing South especially in the developing Americas in the early and mid-1990s and the South-east Asian crisis of the 1997-98, led to a process of increased informal employment for women in the form of a surge in home-based sub-contracted employment outsourced by the large MNCs. The ILO_WIEGO report on Women and Men in the Informal Economy, 2013 reports that out of the total home based workers, 62 percent in South Africa, 70 percent in Brazil and 88 percent in Ghana are women. Significant portions of homebased work pertain to manufacturing activities.  Homebased work for women also account for self-employment in women workers and this forms a bulk of women’s work in South Asia (ILO_WIEGO, 2013).

Apart from manufacturing activities, increased global migration of women for work has also given rise to increase employment of women in domestic work. It is common knowledge that women from the countries of the global South travel across the globe to serve as maids, cooks, nannies, housekeepers, etc. for affluent households in the global North and Gulf countries. The latest conservative estimates find the number of domestic workers increased from 33.2 million in 1995 to 52.6 million in 2010 – or 3.6 per cent of global wage employment (ILO_WIEGO 2013). The State of World Population 2006, UNFPA, reports almost half of 200 million international migrants are women and girls. Domestic workers are an important part of this growing trend. Asia is a large source of international migrants who work as domestics. As of the mid-2000s, around 6.3 million Asian migrants were legally living and working in the more developed Asian countries (UNFPA, 2006). The Gulf countries alone employ millions of migrant domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia there are approximately 1.5 million domestic workers (Human Rights Watch 2008) mostly migrated from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In Latin America, domestic workers (most women) account for up to 60 per cent of internal and cross-border migrants. Young women, in particular, migrate from rural areas to cities or from lower income to higher income countries. Women migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America make up most of the domestic workforce in the USA (UNFPA, 2006), accounting for 58 percent of workers in personal and related services in 2000. Regional, country-specific and more detailed, in-depth micro studies also reveal an array of activities in which women remain gainfully employed. However certain features of women’s employment have not ceased to exist.

The first and foremost of these features are the ‘flexibility’ component associated with women’s work. Apart from cases where women travel distances to work as domestic helps, in most occupations, women engage in part-time activities, mostly home-based, attempting to engage in both paid and unpaid work at the same time, thus ending up working more hours in a day. In cases where women have migrated as domestic helps, the working day never ends as most of the times it becomes a 24x7 job. The second universal feature of women’s work is related to wage discrimination. For years women have fought for ‘equal pay for equal work’ yet even now globally women receive only approximately 65 percent of men’s wages. It is albeit better in the global North, specifically in Scandinavian countries, where there are supporting legislations, but wage discrimination across occupations and sectors remains a prominent feature of women’s work. The third feature being women’s employment in low/un skilled, repetitive, mechanical activities where there remain very low levels of intellectual engagement and low or almost zero scope for any sort of intellectual development. All these together form typical clusters of women’s employment in certain set of occupations which again have strong resemblance with the work that women perform within the household or used to perform in traditional economies. Finally, women’s engagement in low productive sectors such as agriculture, existed since history. While women of advanced capitalist countries have been able to come out of it, not because there were special efforts to pull out women, but there were efforts to transforming the society from a agro-based to an industrial economy, which also acted in moving women out. In the countries of the global south, specifically in Africa and the South Asian sub continent, most women workers still remain engaged in agricultural activities. Women’s employment in agriculture makes up almost 65 percent of the total women’s employment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and almost 40 percent in East and South-East Asia.

Therefore the claim that the advance of capitalism has enabled women workers to come out of the confines of their homes, which has altered the sexual division of labour and altered the gender segregation of jobs is quite exaggerated. What one could essentially claim is that the sites of exploitation and the forms of discrimination have been altered. Women do face a double burden of oppression, both at the household as well as at the site of production. Households themselves have re-emerged as sites of production for exchange values, where women remain engaged in both paid and unpaid work at the same time. Women workers have not ceased to be looked upon as the ‘secondary earner’ within a family and the ‘male breadwinner bias’ does feed into the wage discriminations that women face in the labour markets, unless protected by strong legal backings, as mentioned earlier. And finally women’s traditional skills as caretaker of the household are also being marketed. While a set of women workers migrate as domestic helps in households to free women of those households to participate in better and perhaps newer forms of employment (the cumulative number being quite low), once again the occupations created do not bring out women from their traditional gender roles. Those who get employed as domestic helps do the similar household chores, albeit in a paid form and those women whose labour are freed by the domestic helps, often face segregation of occupations in the sector where they remains engaged, whether as self-employed or wage-employed. In fact such an organization of labour structures, intensify the rigidities of the division of labour and consequently segregation of occupations.

It is also very important to understand the role of women in reproduction. The existence of an unpaid care economy in which women spend most of their productive abilities, which is also vital for maintaining and raising the labour force, is posed as a major constraint for women to participate in the paid work sphere. It has always been highlighted that technological innovations have reduced the time spent on women’s daily chores such as cooking, cleaning, caring for the old and sick, which has helped more women to participate in income earning activities. However, whether it has really been able to alter the division of labour still remains doubtful. Most women still prefer part-time engagement in paid activities, often working from home. Such arrangements often blur the lines between paid and unpaid work performed by women.

Thus, the major submission that I wish to make from all the above discussion is that while, such forms of women’s employment, where women are exploited doubly, where households are both sites of production for exchange values as well as consumption, where lines of paid and unpaid activities blur, the process of accumulation under the modified organisation of production, yields higher levels of surplus. This is to say that keeping women confined to clusters of typical occupations discussed earlier, and a simultaneous process of gendering certain occupations, blurring the difference between paid and unpaid work, for example, increased informalisation of the economy, has its own way of reorganising the mode of production with a high profit motive.

Given this, the drive for accumulating larger amount of profit would actually never initiate the breakdown of the division of labor and thus would never lower the burden of ‘unpaid work’ for women. In fact under the neoliberal capitalist development, there is no conflict between paid and unpaid work as till the time they coexist, the profit motive gets fulfilled at the cost of exploiting women’s labour, irrespective of it being paid or unpaid. There would be newer forms of such exploitation which might further blur the lines between paid and unpaid work but never fundamentally reduce or eliminate women’s unpaid work by altering the division of labour and liberate women from their traditional roles. This system thus would fail to be able to work for women’s emancipation in its current form unless a process of overthrowing the system is in place.


Friedrich Engels, 1884.The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
ILO_Wiego, 2013.Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, Second Edition
UNFPA, 2006.A Passage to Hope: Women and International Migration, State of World Population
Mehra, R and S. Gammage, 1999.Trends, Countertrends and Gaps in Women'sEmployment, World Development Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 533-550
Joekes, S and A. Weston, 1994.WomenandtheNewTradeAgenda, UNIFEM,NewYork
Human Rights Watch, 2008."As If I Am Not Human", Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia. Last accessed from

The author is Research Coordinator at Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, New Delhi

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