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Wages for housework?

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Jonathan Starling argues that women rack up almost 1,500 hours of unpaid labour per year

Happy Pride Month. June is internationally recognised as Pride Month, selected for being the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots on June 29, 1969. While primarily a celebration and rallying call of LGBTQ+ rights, in a wider sense it invites all of us to critically examine concepts of sexuality and gender in all aspects of life. To that end, I hope to dedicate my next few articles to such an endeavour, and likely through to August when Bermuda holds its own Pride Parade and events from August 23 to 27.

In the 1970s, the Italian Marxist Silvia Federici helped cofound the activist group Wages For Housework, which explored how capitalism helps to manufacture an ideology of women’s labour. Essentially, that women were inherently predisposed to do “women’s work”, in this sense leading to the double exploitation of women — especially for working women — first in the workplace in general, although even there on top of their work duties they are expected to perform women’s work, and second having to do a second shift at home. This ultimately constituted a “free gift” to capitalism in terms of how this “free labour” of women helped to both produce and reproduce labour for capitalism — literally in the sense of giving birth to new workers and caring for them until they are ready to become wage slaves, and also in the sense of helping workers recover from the working day so they can be fresh for another day of wage slavery.

While Federici warns against a simply economistic reaction to the concept of wages for housework — as welcome as actual wages would be — she emphasises that the primary value is in exposing the manufacture of sexist notions of the division of labour, including its internalisation by women through socialisation from the family itself, media, education, religion and so forth, as well as the importance of this “free gift” of self-exploitation to the smooth operation and social reproduction of the capitalist system.

There is no data that I could find specific to Bermuda concerning the unequal distribution of what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calls “unpaid labour”. However, there is data from OECD countries to this effect. In the absence of Bermuda-specific data, I will adopt the data from the United States as a substitute. There, it was found that on average women do four additional hours of domestic labour than men do. I feel this is likely an underestimate, as I would include the concept of sexuality — and sex — as part of this unpaid labour, for example. But in the absence of an alternative metric, it will have to do.

With the introduction this month of a minimum wage for Bermuda of $16.40 per hour, we can estimate the minimum true contribution — in wage terms — of this unequal distribution of labour by women in Bermuda. At four hours per day, every day (so 365 days of the year), we come to a total of 1,460 hours of unpaid labour per year (122 hours per month, 28 hours per week, rounding up). Using the minimum wage, that comes to $23,944 worth of labour “gifted” by women per year. That, of course, is very much only the minimum. The unpaid labour involved covers such areas as cooking and cleaning, providing emotional labour — basically counselling/therapy — and acting as caregivers. Assuming the four hours of unpaid labour are broken evenly across those four areas, and using government pay-scale grades at the highest scales for these areas, we come to the following:

Janitor: $55,107 ($30.62/hr)

Cook: $86,903 ($44.57/hr)

Counsellor: $102,967 ($52.80/hr)

Residential Care Officer: $70,391 ($36.10/hr)

This comes to those four hours being at least worth $164.09 per day ($41.03 per hour) — or $59,892 worth of unpaid labour per year. In other words, on average, women in Bermuda are “gifting” capitalism between $23,944 and $59,892 worth of free labour annually.

Naturally, these are very back-of-the-envelope calculations here, and the sole purpose is to make clear how much women, on average, are exploited in our society. Of course, this is uneven. Some men, indeed, do their fair share of domestic labour. Some women do more. Some women work full-time as housewives. Some women are rich enough to essentially outsource most of this labour to others — and this largely takes on a racial aspect here, too, with the hired help being generally Black, Latina or Filipina women. Many women have internalised the manufactured myth that doing such work is simply part of their nature, and many men similarly have internalised such labour as women’s work — some even weaponise incompetence to justify abdication of their responsibilities.

While I echo Federici’s point that the primary value is in terms of exposing this free gift to capitalism, it does make one wonder whether or not one way to address this inequality would be for the collective capitalist, in the form of the state, to introduce a tax on capital, with the proceeds going as an annual wage package to women to compensate for their labour — literal wages for housework.

As stated, this unpaid labour provides a gift to capital, and making capital pay for it would be arguably justice. Of course, much more ideally, we should critically reject the notion of women’s work in the first place, work towards gender equality in terms of domestic labour, and collectively have our true labour paid for, regardless of gender.

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

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Published June 12, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated June 11, 2023 at 9:04 pm)

Wages for housework?

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