Video: Women’s Unpaid Work and Work From Home

An interview with Karla Bookman on Social Reproduction Work of Women with Work From Home norms setting in:

Kit’s Mom’s Work, Credit: Core Knowledge Foundation 2013
  1. Will the post-COVID world enable us to reshape the caring economy by recognizing care work as labour? Can you talk about what that would look like, and what the specific opportunity is to reframe the way we value and compensate care work?

The COVID crisis which forced men and women workers, and children to stay home, has brought some focus on care work. At the level of the households, with children at home and no help at hand the effort that goes to keeping children engaged and healthy has hit home. Men who may not have been involved at all in care work may better understand the problem. But overall, I do not think that this short period of staying home is going to impact the patriarchal structure of our society. Care for the young and aged has been considered the work of women before the pandemic and is not likely to change dramatically post-COVID.

At the level of the economy, there may be a new recognition of the importance of the care economy. However, in the official labour statistics only paid care is counted as work. Unpaid care work of the women and other family workers is not counted as work. This is unlikely to change because of the fact that care work became a little more visible during the pandemic. The System of National Accounts, which decided the methods of collecting data on national income GDP, already requires countries to collect information on the care and other work of women and non-workers in satellite accounts wherein the computed income will be available but not included in the GDP. In reality very few countries actually create such satellite accounts.

Will the care giving economy and facilities in the country change? Will there be more affordable child and old age care in the economy? The government is unlikely to see this as a priority, given that they are hardly able to handle the public health system or control the private health system in this time of crisis. Will the private sector step in and provide for care work? It is mandatory for large enterprises to provide child care facilities, but how many do so now? In fact, the work from home option that has now become the norm may mean that women and care givers, if employed, will be asked to work from home.

2. In many instances, we’re seeing companies thinking of moving towards work-from-home policy and a flexible work culture even in the long-run. We’ve already seen from previous studies the kinds of problems this flexible work culture poses for women. Should this concern us? And what needs to be done to ensure that flexible work culture is inclusive?

Work-from-home is the reality for many of us urban women today. But as a reality check I would like to repeat that in the Economic Census noted that 36 percent of all enterprises are operated from home. Further, in 2011-12, NSO data showed that 32 percent of all women were home-based workers in non-agricultural activities, 30 percent of women in urban areas. So while this may be new phenomenon for the middle class workers, it has been the reality for urban women.

It has been argued that working from home gives flexibility to women to manage the home and work. In fact, surveys have noted that more women would be willing to work, if it was made available at home. But there are two problems here. From the side of the worker, if the house is not large enough and there are many members in the household, it is difficult to designate a specific space as a workplace. Even if one did have space and few members, being at home means continuous distraction of children seeking attention (if there are children), the door bell ringing and attending to domestic and care responsibilities in the house. All these can lower productivity of the worker. From the side of the employer, he may use this as a way to reduce his fixed costs. Many start-ups use the strategy of not hiring space on a regular basis and work from home. For physical meetings it is possible to hire co-work spaces for short periods of time. So as such if work-from-home becomes the more common norm, there is no problem. Many years ago I had observed in China, that even faculty in research institutions were asked to come to the office only twice a week. This was to reduce requirements of space in the office and to reduce congestion on the streets and in public transport.

The problem would arise, as you suggest, if this work-from-home culture attempts to discriminate against women and particular socially disadvantaged groups. If only the men and the upper caste attend the office and women and others work-from-home there can arise forms of subtle exclusion, from higher managerial decisions and even promotions. The person working from home can much more easily be accused of shirking as it is not possible to fully monitor her activities. But all this is in the realm of imagination and as such there is no harm in work-from-home.

WFH has different implications for various sectors. In the education sector, both schools and colleges are considering taking classes online with teachers, professors working from home and the students staying at home. As India still has the problem of the digital divide this is a major problem for the students in poor households with no smartphone or laptop or only one belonging to the parents or elder siblings. Further internet connectivity may be poor and data charges can be a great burden on the house hold budget.

In the gig economy also people were accessing work through the platform from home. All the problems of regulation of such work, discrimination, harassment and lack of bargaining power, will apply to work-from-home. The government so far has not moved to regulate such work and the platforms have been doing so themselves to the extent they can. Can we expect the government to regulate work-from-home? Perhaps it may become the reality in the near future.


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