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WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK

All Indians, male and female, who have grown up in large families have childhood memories of invisible and unpaid labour. Grandfather wanted his grey hairs plucked and knuckles pulled. Grandmother wanted the pickles drying on the terrace protected from monkeys. Father wanted the tread of small feet on his aching back. Mother wanted the bottles filled with water and put into the fridge. But hard labour also meant hard bargaining. Ten paise, rather than five, per hair or knuckle; a pocket-money hike if the bottles had to be cleaned before being filled. Striking such bargains did not have anything to do with knowing about children’s rights, the economics of labour or the politics of invisibility. Children are just cunning by nature. They know how to convert powerlessness into advantage.

The Union minister for women and child development must have been inspired by such memories, for there is more than a touch of the infantile in her vision of a law that would make husbands pay their wives a percentage of their salaries for the work they do at home. To make these domestic wages fair to both employer and employee (that is, husband and wife), the Central ministry of statistics and programme implementation will conduct a countrywide time-use survey that would help calculate the price of the various chores that women perform at home. The National Mission for the Empowerment of Women has already found out that women spend 2.1 hours a day cooking, 1.1 cleaning, and 3.16 bringing up their children. Nothing like statistics to make silliness look like governance.

It is fascinating, though, to pursue this idea of home-making as paid work to its limit of absurdity, for every aspect of private life, emotion and expression of emotion begins then to look both terribly real and terribly unreal at the same time. If the idea of work is to be freed from the yoke of invisibility, then why should the definition of work remain confined to the realm of the physical and the tangible? For instance, if the nitty-gritty of bringing up children is work that must be paid for, then what about the work of producing the children? If sex is work for sex-workers, then, by the logic of non-discrimination, why should conjugal sex not be regarded as work for married women? If the proposed law regards the home-maker as a “home engineer”, then what better example of home- engineering than the work of making love to make babies? And the bosses better pay up.

This way of monetizing women’s work ends up subjecting the notion of “value” itself — and, therefore, of being valued as a human being — to an absurd and impossible literalism. When valuing a certain kind of work is reduced to putting a price to it in terms of time-use, then the mindlessness of this sort of economics is nothing short of an insult to the seriousness of the problem of sexual injustice that dogs Indian women today.