Debates about women’s unpaid reproductive labour have been going on since the first woman received cash for her services. Reproductive labour includes cooking, cleaning, and caring for the elderly, the sick and children.
It’s important to make the distinction between paid and unpaid reproductive labour. Paid reproductive labour is performed in exchange for money or a wage. Unpaid reproductive labour is done for free, and usually for the household in which the individual lives.
This reproductive work has traditionally been undervalued by both formal and informal institutions in societies, whether paid or unpaid.
As paid reproductive workers, women often find themselves in occupations that are highly feminised. These are jobs which consist of a large percentage of female workers, such as work in domestic service, health care or clerical work. This is either because those are the only types of jobs available to them or because their ‘skill set’ is said to be conducive for that type of labour. These types of occupations also tend to be lower paid and more insecure than other occupations.
As unpaid reproductive work, on the other hand, the work of women has gone widely unnoticed and is excluded from things such as the calculation of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Even though the calculation of GDP is said to consider goods produced within the home, quantifying the value of goods produced for use within the home is still a challenge for statisticians.
The production of goods and services within the home has typically been carried out by women, as girls and boys are socialised about their respective roles within the household from a young age. As women entered formal paid employment, many thought (as per the prescriptions of traditional economic theory) that the reproductive labour burden would equalise between men and women. But this didn’t happen.
The gap between men and women in paid and unpaid work remains vast, and women who are in paid jobs often still perform these duties in addition to their wage labour. Women are estimated to spend up to five hours a day more on unpaid reproductive labour than men. To cope with these responsibilities, these tasks have increasingly become ‘outsourced’ to people who live outside the household. Examples are employing a domestic worker to clean, employing a nanny to care for children, or ordering take-aways rather than cooking in the home.
Even where these tasks are performed outside the home, women may be left to pay for them or ‘manage’ the employees who perform them.
Women’s extended working days have thus become normalised, despite the adverse effects this has on women’s progression within the labour market and their general well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a fresh look at this state of affairs. It has shone a light on the impact that poverty, inequality and unemployment have on people every day. This includes the hardships women face and the burden placed on them to manage responsibilities on a daily basis.