Unpaid Domestic Work

The unpaid domestic work performed by housewives is possibly the most prevalent yet least studied form of reproductive labour in India. The rate of marriage for women in India by the age of 30 is close to 94.8%. Divorce rates on average are quite low (2.6%) and women’s labour force participation rate is also relatively low and has been declining over time. Where it was 25.4% in 1987-1988, it stood at 13.4% in 2011-2012 in urban India. Women’s participation in domestic activities is meanwhile on the rise. Economists attribute the decline in female labour force participation to several reasons, including an income effect (from increased household incomes and reduced agrarian work opportunities) and increased educational opportunities for women. Some feminist economists however disagree and attribute it instead to a crisis in social reproduction. Yet other feminist economists attribute the declining female labour force participation to undercounting due to employment surveys’ conventional understanding of work.

In terms of the law, family law has remained the primary site for seeking recognition of housewives’ labour upon divorce. Of late, tort law has emerged as a site for legal debates on how to value the reproductive labour of housewives. In the case of Arun Kumar Agrawal and Another v National Insurance Company And Others ((2010) 9 SCC 218), where a housewife was killed in an accident, the Indian Supreme Court reviewed the various principles on the basis of which her husband and children could be compensated for the loss of her services. Citing a range of international sources, and critical of the Indian census for categorising housewives alongside beggars, sex workers and prisoners, the Indian Supreme Court called for more meaningful valuation of the reproductive labour of housewives especially as it was estimated as being worth US$612.8 billion per year. In addition to private law mechanisms, the Indian state operates numerous welfare schemes aimed at the working poor to ensure elements of social reproduction, including the Integrated Child Services Development Scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and schemes under the Right to Education Act, 2009 and the National Food Security Act, 2013.

The Laws of Social Reproduction project will build on the limited field work on ‘housewives’ in the Indian context by undertaking original empirical research on unpaid housework and map the regulatory mix of public laws, private laws and welfare schemes and policies that support the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid housework as required by SDG 5.4.