Coronavirus Means Unpaid Domestic Labour Might Finally Get the Recognition It Deserves

by Grace Blakeley

16 April 2020

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One positive that could emerge from the lockdown precipitated by the spread of the coronavirus is that the domestic work undertaken every day, largely by women, might finally be acknowledged. 

Families in lockdown together are being forced to confront the question of how this domestic work is divided amongst different members of the household – a question that is, as most women will know, deeply political.

Economists take the household as their unit of economic analysis when looking at the behaviour of individual consumers. Household disposable incomes, household debt, household asset ownership – these are all common economic indicators.

Despite their assumptions about the inherently self-interested nature of human beings, economists are willing to allow that the household is the one economic sphere run based on socialist principles – where work, assets and income are all shared according to ability and need. 

In contrast to their overly cynical assumptions about human nature, economists’ assumptions about households are extremely naïve. Struggles over resources, time and work do not end at the boundary of the household – if anything, they become more intense within it. 

Globally, women perform 75% of unpaid care work, contributing about 13% of global GDP in the process. In the UK, one study found that the average woman does around 16 hours of unpaid domestic labour per week, next to six for men. Even when both individuals were employed, women were five times as likely as men to spend at least 20 hours a week on domestic labour.

But even where domestic labour responsibilities are shared more equally – in, for example, couples where women are the main earner – much of this labour is outsourced to working class women. Cleaners, nannies and carers all undertake domestic labour on behalf of wealthy couples, often for very low wages. These women then find themselves saddled with their own domestic labour when they return home. 

Indeed, care work is systematically undervalued throughout our society – undoubtedly because it is seen as the preserve of women. Nurses, care workers and cleaners – whether they work in domestic, commercial or public settings – are paid very low wages for work that can be extremely physically and emotionally laborious.

Austerity has only exacerbated this issue, as wages for public sector health and care workers, who are disproportionately likely to be women, have collapsed and their working conditions worsened. Many of these women are migrants, who work in the UK and send back remittances to their families, for whom this might be their only source of income. 

The mythologies that have been developed around the division of domestic labour are incredibly powerful and deep-seated; they are also extremely political. The origins of the skewed responsibility for domestic labour will not be found in any natural imbalances between the genders, but in imbalance of power, rooted in the relative social and economic positions of men and women. 

Historically, bourgeois married women in the global north have been forced to stay at home to undertake domestic labour on behalf of their husbands. In Capital, Karl Marx looks at how the advent of the industrial revolution warped the structure of the family, forcing working class women and their children into extremely challenging work. He, and many others at the time, saw this as a moral scandal owing to the impact it would have on women’s natural character. 

During the post-war period, the single-earner household became the ideal in the rich world once again. Relatively higher wages, fought for by a male-dominated labour movement, allowed many working-class women to stay at home to undertake domestic labour full time.

The combination of sociological changes that gave women more independence, and the erosion in bargaining power from the 1970s onwards that led to a fall in wage growth, encouraged more women into work from the 1980s onwards. But even then, they faced huge disparities in pay and conditions – and these disparities were often used to justify lumping them with greater domestic responsibilities. 

Given the new international division of labour that has emerged since the 1980s, one cannot understand these changes on a purely national level. Unwaged work within the household and community – from caring and cleaning to farming and trading – has always been central to women’s work in the global south.

But globalisation has precipitated a new wave of primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession, which, along with technological transformations in agriculture, have forced many women in the global south into the global mass of the reserve army of labour. 

On the one hand, with much formal work reserved for men, many of these women were left to find work in the informal economy, trading and providing services in informal marketplaces. Today, the world’s huge informal economy is dominated by women.

On the other hand, many women migrated to wealthier parts of the world and found work as carers, nurses and cleaners. Migrant women make up a disproportionate percentage of these jobs, with many more directly undertaking care work on behalf of wealthy women. 

Today, many wealthy women are unable to outsource their domestic labour because of the lockdown. Meanwhile, those working in the NHS and social care are suddenly being treated as heroes for their work tackling the pandemic.

As the coronavirus crisis wears on, it will become harder to ignore the gendered division of labour in our society, which sees the work undertaken by working class women, many of whom are migrants, sidelined and devalued.

In the aftermath of this crisis, perhaps the contribution of these women may finally be recognised – ideologically and financially. 

Grace Blakeley is an economics commentator and author of Stolen: How to save the world from financialisation

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