Foreign Policy Blogs

Dollars for Dishes, Chores for Change

"Desperate housewives", courtesy suyensedai/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Should those (mostly women) who do not participate in the labor market, instead remaining at home to look after the house and raise children, receive compensation for their work? It’s a thorny issue which is as divisive as it is complex.

In the final referendum of 2013, Swiss voters were asked to share their opinion on the subject via the ballot box. The political party  proposed a tax break for stay-at-home mothers. (In Switzerland, as far as I am aware, stay-at-home fathers are rare to the point of social invisibility.) The Swiss People’s Party, claimed it as a way to decrease discrimination against those who adhered to a more ‘traditional’ family model. More specifically, the initiative aimed to ensure that tax breaks for parents with children at home would be “at least equivalent” to those for parents who decided to use daycare.

With nearly 59 percent of voters rejecting the proposal, Switzerland will not be implementing the system any time soon. But why should it even have been considered in the first place? For the reason that activists have been pushing since the idea took off in the 1970s: when a woman does the same work outside of the home, for the benefit of someone else, she most likely receives payment; it’s a job. Do that within your own home and it’s simply expected free labor.

A writer for the Canadian Globe and Mail put it pretty bluntly: “It would be a mistake to reduce the issue to a squabble over who folds the underwear. The gender gap in unpaid labour has significant implications for policy: It makes no productive sense for a chunk of the country’s educated population to be spending disproportionate time on brain-numbing tasks because of their gender.”

In Switzerland, opposition to the initiative claimed that the lasting effect would be to discourage women from seeking paid employment, and promote the “traditional model family” whereby the wife stays at home to look after the children and domestic environment. On the flipside, supporters argued that women would be given a choice they had not had before, as high childcare costs quickly diminished the possibility of a second salary’s usefulness and value.

Moving on to the broader debate, I found myself nodding in agreement with Zoë Fairbairn’s article for a 1988 edition of the new internationalist: “Demanding money for unpaid domestic work is a sad indictment of the Women’s Movement…because it demonstrates that feminists have lost the battle to force men to do their share of the cleaning.” What’s even sadder is that men apparently have to be “forced” to do cleaning at all, a certain level of domestication being expected on the part of their female partners. Nearly 40 years ago, women in Iceland decided this wasn’t completely acceptable and organized a women’s “day off.” Repeated in 2005 and 2011, it highlighted the contribution women make to the economy through paid labor—but at around 66 percent of the equivalent male salary—and the leisure time gained by those for whom housework is being done on their behalf.

It’s not just leisure time that is increased – male earning power also benefits from their partner’s unpaid labor. A paper on “Feminism and Family Justice” notes that in the event of divorce, “the man exits the marriage with sole ownership of the enhanced earning power that both spouses worked to produce in anticipation of a future they would share.” This doesn’t sound like a particularly balanced outcome nor does it seem to place much value on the ‘background tasks’ supporting what was initially a bright future. But that’s what happens.

So what about outsourcing? Yes, hiring a cleaner or housekeeper who does these tasks for you? Freeing you up to be a more productive member of society? A wonderful solution if you can afford it! Or maybe not.

Australian research found little evidence “that women who outsource domestic work by hiring help or dining out spend less time on housework than women who do not.” Furthermore, in a society where the male is traditionally the breadwinner, a high-powered woman may actually do an even greater number of hours of housework and childcare in order to try compensate for her gender-deviant breadwinning position. Then comes the accusation that paying for housework is simply exploiting others and morally indefensible. But then it can also be argued that employing domestic help provides women with their own income stream and contributes to their independence and self-worth. And…and…

So where does this lead? Hopefully to a discussion on a private level over an equitable distribution of household tasks. Are you doing an unfair amount of washing and cleaning just because you believe it’s what’s expected of you? Women were also expected not to be able to be capable of voting. Or driving. Or abstract thought. Maybe it will lead to greater acknowledgement of the social and economic contribution those who work unpaid in the home make (whether by choice or otherwise), like in Venezuela. Or maybe to a reinforcement that the work done in taking care of your children and your home is valuable and rewarding in itself. The choice is yours.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.