Why caring must be remunerated – a response to Action Aid

Today (22/09/16), the Guardian newspaper printed this article about the findings of research undertaken by ActionAid, which conclusively proves that women worldwide work an average of more than two years more than men, due to doing the majority of caring and domestic labour across the globe. Although this news will be firmly of the No Shit, Sherlock variety to women, especially those with children, it is good to see the facts laid bare and made clear by such a well-respected organisation. It calls for this labour to be respected, recognised and valued, and to be shared more equally by men and the state. This is all good. However… chief executive, Girish Menon, makes it clear that ActionAid thinks women should not actually receive anything tangible for this, like, say, money.

Ah, that old “mums love their kids so shouldn’t be paid for looking after them 24-7” chestnut. I bet Girish Menon loves his job. I wonder if he would be happy not to be paid because of that. I suspect there’d be a good reason why him loving his job isn’t a reason to not be paid (suggestions: his penis, lack of wiping shitty arses, etc., etc.). Let’s tell that to the thousands of women approaching retirement in the UK, who are going to receive little or no pension because they haven’t paid enough national insurance due to being stay at home mums and/or housewives. I’m sure the appreciation for what they did will totally make the terror of their upcoming poverty feel much better and magically become manageable. Let’s tell that to the billions of women worldwide trapped into domesticity and abuse and exploitation because their husband/father/brother/uncle/etc. has all the money and therefore all the power. A few compliments about how much they love their kids will make it all better. Especially if they’re living in poverty and pregnant with their 11th child despite being told another pregnancy could kill them.

Here’s his quote in the Guardian in full:
“We do not mean to suggest that all unpaid work, including unpaid care work, should be remunerated, or to ascribe a monetary value to unpaid care, which includes what we believe to be intrinsically invaluable activities, such as loving and nurturing children and family”.

Note how the labour of mothering is reduced to wording that indicates emotion and ephemeral things, not the actual non-stop, sheer hard slog of mothering, which is 24-7, and especially so with babies and toddlers. Note how it’s the age-old romanticised way of describing mothers, trying to make them feel special while denying their real, hard, ordinary work and dehumanising them as flesh and blood people, as though mothering is just floating about sighing “I wuv my baybee” blissfully.

He goes on: ““Rather, ActionAid believes women’s unpaid work should be recognised, reduced and redistributed – between women and men, and between the household and the state.”

Yeah, that’s going to happen when it’s seen as women just floating about sighing “I wuv my baybee” blissfully.

Finally: ““Women’s labour – in and outside the home – is vital to sustainable development and for the wellbeing of society. Without the subsidy it provides, the world economy would not function. Yet it is undervalued and for the most part invisible.”

Good analysis, can’t fault it. But can’t you see that if it subsidises the world economy and that’s unfair, how do you think supporting the continuation of it for free will change any of that? And seeing as it is so vital, how dare you not conclude that it shouldn’t be paid?!

Let’s look at the ‘logic’ of what’s being said: ‘Being a mum or carer is vital, valuable, wonderful work. That’s why you shouldn’t receive any money for it and should instead pay other women to do it for you’. Yes, that makes perfect sense. What ActionAid is suggesting is both idealistic yet simultaneously limited and mealy-mouthed. It reads like it wants this inequality and oppression to be done away with… but not too much. Like it wants to help women but doesn’t want to upset the men who benefit from their oppression and exploitation by doing so. Like it can’t picture a world where women aren’t oppressed in this way, but they just want people to be a bit more polite about it, and hey, fellas, would it kill you to wash up now and then?

I’m sure that this isn’t what their intentions are, but it is how it reads. The analysis of how this could and should be ameliorated is woolly and empty. They want caring and domestic work to be respected and valued, and for men to do more and for there to be more support from the state. All fantastic and vital aims. Which won’t work without remuneration, which is what I intend to make clear in this post.

If this labour is so valuable, then why refuse to pay for it and tell women the way to better themselves is to do other work that is paid and get other women to do the caring for them? That’s not fooling anyone. That’s telling women to behave exactly like men do to their wives/partners, and thus just upholding that misogynist, hierarchical model, not smashing it. It’s just passing the buck. When our government (UK) implemented a new policy for shared parental leave, less than 3% of men eligible took it up. And why would they? When women don’t get paid for it, don’t get respected for it, when men know full well how much stress it causes them, how thinly it stretches them, why on earth would they sign up for that? When they are getting away with exploiting women that way already, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

There is no impetus for men to start doing more caring and domestic labour or respecting women more for doing it. If they gave a shit, they would already be doing more and respecting more. There’s the paradox. There’s the reason why calls for change like this one sound good but are just full of hollow words. Asking men to change and do more means asking them to give up their privilege and entitlements to do exactly what is demeaning and beneath them in their eyes and to respect and value that which their very masculinity is built around not respecting or valuing, to participate in the very activities that they are trained from infancy to see as their free due from women, to see as inferior nonsense that allows them to do their real, male work.

You can’t make the changes they call for in societies where capitalism is king, where all other labour is paid, where all other labour is only justified as labour by payment. Where only paid labour is acknowledged and respected. Where wage is used as justification for men being seen and treated as superior, better, more important, ‘the man of the house’ and so on. In every society, men’s labour is paid better or the only labour paid and this is used to excuse and normalise inequality and oppression.

In fact, this approach fundamentally ignores the fact that patriarchy can only exist and operate through the abuse and exploitation of women’s reproductive capacities. When male supremacy is created and maintained through acquiring a woman as a possession through marriage (including the prevalence of polygamy or having concubines in many parts of the world) to be used basically as a domestic and childbearing, child rearing servant or slave, the idea of getting men to magically relinquish their power, privilege, entitlement, domination and egoism by valuing the very labour that allows them all that would be laughably naive if it wasn’t so offensive. Besides, patriarchal cultures have always justified the way mothers and other women are treated by spreading what is nothing less than the propaganda that women are exalted and prized as mothers. That we are fragrant, beatific, angelic creatures who bring succour and sophistication to the brutish brows of men, so stressed and exhausted by the paid labour they have to perform to keep their ‘Angel of the hearth’ in the private sphere, where they belong, too fragile, infantile and yet too dangerously alluring to be allowed into the public sphere. Men who are simultaneously so strong, mighty, brilliant, intelligent, capable and powerful that they should have all the money, jobs (or best jobs and positions), power, you name it, yet so weak, stupid, immature, confused, unable to control themselves, etc., that they can’t work out how to use a kettle, change a nappy, hold a baby or understand sexual consent.

And what about the work cultures that women are being encouraged into to escape the apparently valuable, important, brilliant work that is also beneath them and not worth paying for, what of those? Here in the West, the fact that we have a gender pay gap that became illegal over 40 years ago yet which will not be closed within the working lifetime of anyone alive today, massive numbers of women being made illegally redundant or downsized during or after pregnancy, over 80% of austerity measures solely affecting the work, pay and contracts of women, plunging huge numbers into poverty, huge problems with sexual harassment in the workplace, problems with promotions, raises, and so on, and so much more, is an absolute luxury compared to the paid work women do in the majority of the globe, and the environments and culture they do it in. That’s if they even live in countries where women are allowed to do paid work or allowed out of their own home as grown-ass, intelligent, capable women without a male chaperone. Or where women are not forced to seclude themselves from the rest of society in horrific conditions when they menstruate. Or where wives are not allowed to refuse sex to their husbands and can be made to go service him at any time of the day, anywhere he wants, should he demand it. And where all the legislation that is supposed to protect the rights of women and girls, however meagre, however inadequate, is ignored, exploited, got around and seen as an offence to men. It’s no good talking of creating laws to protect women and girls when the ones that already exists are already flouted, because men have all the power, and – here’s a clue, ActionAid – money.

So much needs to change. So, so much. I can see why ActionAid might think that a realistic approach is to basically appeal to the better nature of misogynists (the ultimate oxymoron) and hope that men will feel charitable enough to just be a bit nicer to women. Like giving a loyal dog the scraps off your plate. Like indulging a precocious child with a pat on the head.

Everyone understands that having access to one’s own money is the way to greater freedom and equality for women (financial abuse is one of the greatest forms of abuse globally, including for women who are the sole earners). Everyone understands that when women have less or no money, freedom and equality are restricted or impossible. So why on earth the refusal to remunerate women for the most common form of labour on earth – mothering and caring?! Why refuse to remunerate women for the work of over 80% of all women? Why refuse to remunerate mothers for work that you acknowledge that it is vital and important work which allows the world economy to exist and flourish?! Why refuse to remunerate women for unpaid work that is worth over £1 trillion in the UK alone, a figure that is almost equal to our entire GDP? Why refuse to remunerate women for the work that the UN unequivocally says is what allows every economy on Earth to even exist? (I guess I’m answering my own questions here)

Why is looking after children seen as work worthy of payment only when it’s not for your own children?!

Why refuse to truly acknowledge it as genuine labour, full stop?

What lies behind every refusal to accept that it must be remunerated, even coming from those on the furthest left, or with the most genuine of good intentions, is the fear of making men, of making society in general, give up the exploitation of women. Not only in terms of caring and domestic labour, although that most of all, because it is the most intrinsic. This refusal is born of a fear of truly accepting women as equal, as real, as human, as worthy. It is a refusal to cut the umbilical cord of exploiting females, in all ways, not just via motherhood or domesticity. What would happen if we truly start seeing and treating caring labour as real labour? Valuing care threatens everything that patriarchy and masculinity stand for – why else was it chosen to be twisted into the primary way to control and oppress women?! It is, and always has been used thus precisely because it is so vital, is so essential, for all humanity. It has to be done, it needs to be done, and care, of all sorts, of all types, for all people, matters more than anything. The only way to gain power over this is to devalue it and those who do it.

Imagine the paradigm shift across the entire globe if we really did start respecting care. It is possible, if we start where we are – in a global society which prioritises pay. As mothers, having others patronise us and pay lip service and offer the occasional break is more insulting than doing and saying nothing. We don’t need studies to tell us that things are unfair and that we are doing more, doing too much, and yet being told we do nothing. We need money to be literally put where these mouths are. – EP

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