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Business News/ Economy / What’s love got to do with the economy?
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What’s love got to do with the economy?

Through the pandemic, we have seen how care, provided mostly by women, underpins the resilience and productivity of the economy

The edifice of India’s economy is largely built by the money men make and trade held together by the invisible love and unpaid care women offer. Yet, policymaking does not invest in equitable work conditions, income security or psychological assurance for women.  (Photo: Getty Images)Premium
The edifice of India’s economy is largely built by the money men make and trade held together by the invisible love and unpaid care women offer. Yet, policymaking does not invest in equitable work conditions, income security or psychological assurance for women.  (Photo: Getty Images)

In a world where we increasingly believe that the economy is merely the fate of crypto-currencies, profits of technology platforms, faceless statistics on jobs and GDP growth, stock prices, and scores served up by ratings agencies, the notion that love and care are fundamental to economic policymaking is laughable hippie-talk to many dude-bro types who debate and follow economic trends. And yet, our families and firms would not have survived the pandemic without care, nurture and love.

Covid-19 should force us to re-examine how we imagine the economy. Day after day, through the crisis, we have witnessed how care underpins the resilience and productivity of our communities and businesses. Crucial support was provided by a visible and an invisible set of care-workers—a fairly female group composed of housewives cooking and caring for the sick and elderly, mothers forcing children to wash hands, nurses face-timing the families of patients, community health workers following up on vaccinations, self-help groups preparing meals and delivering welfare benefits, teachers trying to impart lessons through a screen and an army of female contact tracers. While these labours have received tremendous lip service and praise from the political establishment, they remain poorly paid and esteemed in the economy.

Equal work, equal pay
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Equal work, equal pay

In my recent book, I attempt to demonstrate how love is intrinsic to any discussion or framing of the economy. For research, I collated data on gender-gaps in access to jobs and incomes from government surveys and scholars, while also following the economic and personal lives of a diverse swathe of women.

The labour of love

The stories and statistics cover a period of 30 years: from liberalization to lockdown. Love emerges as a fundamental lever in how women engage with the economy. Feminist economists have always surmised that notions and acts of love are central to grasping economic frameworks, especially in countries such as India where the labours of love are overwhelmingly performed by its women.

Through the long period of my book project, many well-wishers and friends would look puzzled when I described the premise of my endeavour. What does love have to do with the economy?

First, Indian women are largely employed by the act of loving. Beyond women in care-oriented service sector jobs such as nursing and domestic work, the edifice of India’s economy is largely built by the money men make and trade held together by the invisible love and unpaid care women offer.

A 2017 World Economic Forum report found that 66% of Indian women’s labour goes unpaid. Only 11% of men’s labours were unpaid. Oxfam has found that Indian women put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, estimated to be a contribution of nearly 19 trillion to the Indian economy.

Nearly six out of ten Indian women aged 15 and older are statistically categorized by the government employment surveys as attending to “domestic duties". These women are hardly unemployed, they simply spend all their time exclusively on unpaid housework. By contrast, seven out of ten men aged 15 and older were employed or actively looking for employment. Despite sharp increases in the numbers of educated women, this distribution of labour has remained the same for the past two decades.

As per analysis by economist Sutirtha Sinha Roy using CMIE data in 2020, even among the richest 20% of urban Indians, only 6.5% of married women held a job outside the home.

These data reveal a clear division of labour in India: men must earn money by labouring outside the home, while women must earn love by caring inside it. Earning love is, of course, far more laborious than earning money.

In India, the support offered by men and government agencies when it comes to household chores and care ranks among the lowest in the world. Women bear the overwhelming burden of being the sole providers of care for children, nourishing the future workforce, while also caring for the elderly. Love motivates women to take on back-breaking gestures of care with good cheer. Even with plentiful domestic help, love ensures that women enthusiastically keep house.

Feminists have long argued that women’s unpaid, unappreciated role as caregivers is a form of domestic slavery which we are socialized into accepting. At the same time, they recognize that women undertake care for family members and loved ones for all kinds of reasons, including to consolidate their position within relationships, to express love and to feel loved in return. But men are rarely expected to perform the effort-intensive parts of caring and loving.

In 2019, urban Indian men spent 94 minutes per day on unpaid housework, compared to 293 minutes by urban women. In rural India, if we included employment-related activities with unpaid care work in our definition of ‘working’, the government’s time-use data from 2019 shows that rural men, those between the ages of 15 and 59 years, worked 10-hour days. Rural women worked longer days, at 13 hours—spending five and a half hours on employment related tasks and nearly eight hours on unpaid housework.

Using CMIE data for April 2020, economist Ashwini Desphande suggests that men did help in ‘domestic duties’ more as they worked from home. However, this increase amounted to only 2.5 hours a day while women spent nearly five hours on care-work. The relaxation of work-from-home rules has probably resulted in a return to a more lopsided burden of care work within the home. Globally, India is in the bottom five countries when it comes to the share of men supporting housework.

The labour of love is not merely cooking, cleaning and childcare. It involves preserving peaceful family ties by organizing events, rituals, providing counselling and emotional support. Women are tasked with these jobs.

As the scholar and writer Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, had pointed out, ‘Sexism decrees emotional care and love is the task of women and men come home too tired to deliver emotional goods.’ Therefore, for women, love is hard work.

Beyond the drudgery of domestic chores, the responsibility for keeping track of other people’s feelings and needs has by default been devolved to women.

In our society, it is women who must display consideration and patience, who must respond with equanimity when, as is the norm, love’s labours are neither recognized nor duly rewarded. At the office or factory, you are paid money to accept the frustrating invisibility of your efforts.

Love, as expected of women, is similarly invisible, intensive work without any clear norms of remuneration. Love needs time, skills and effort. Earning money in the world outside, though hideously stressful, is far more straightforward. An economy that would acknowledge the labour of love would invest in water, heating, electricity and subsidize domestic appliances to reduce domestic drudgery for women working within the home.

Second, love and its associated labour of caring (cooking, cleaning or counselling family members) mediates how women decide to take up paid jobs and where. The recent work of economists shows how women frequently enter and exit the workforce depending on whether job opportunities are flexible and allow them to combine paid work with unpaid caregiving. Consequently, women end up in ad-hoc and poorly paid jobs in home-based industries and self-employment.

The home as a workplace

According to a report by statistician G Raveendran for the global non-profit organization, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO),64% of Indian women employed in the manufacturing sector worked from home in 2017, as opposed to 15% of men.

Despite home-based work being a fairly feminized occupation, women earn 24 an hour, while men earn double that amount. Yet, the home is not recognized as a workplace and dominant modes of policy making think of the economy residing in factories and fields. An economy that would acknowledge the labour of loving would also acknowledge the home as a workplace. It would invest in shelter security and regulating wages and working conditions for home-based industries and domestic workers.

Finally, families and men use love to tax women into conforming to traditional roles. Women who wish to cultivate professional identities beyond traditional scripts of motherhood and marriage endure what economists call “hidden taxes" from families and loved ones. These taxes are emotional costs, loneliness and nuisance levied on women when they try to stand on their own feet.

Through my research, I glimpsed into the myriad ways women were made to feel judged, unsure, unworthy and unloved for valuing their offices and colleagues over predominantly focusing on their domestic roles of being beautiful and dutiful.

Love is a job; love guides women’s invisible care services in the economy and their professional choices; and love is a tax. Yet, economic discussions, usually dominated by male technocrats, never truly incorporate women’s experiences and the labours of care and love into policy discussions or innovations.

An economy that acknowledges love as a key output and ingredient for well-being would pay its care-workers better, would regulate home-based industries and expand shelter support to women.

A loving economy would credibly invest in elderly and childcare services, allow more flexible work, and offer income support to all women to partly remunerate their care jobs. These tools can also provide psychological assurance to precarious workers facing an increasingly unequal world. Such policies are hardly difficult to implement. Many national and state programmes are attempting to chart this tough path.

Most importantly, beyond the world of policies, we need to bring love into the way we debate and discuss the economy in our drawing rooms and universities. This requires us to frame and understand the economy not only as a set of soulless transactions, rather a set of relationships and sentiments.

Love drives and powers the economy; it guides our productivity and our predilections to make and buy things. After all, the economy is embedded within society, not divorced from it.

Shrayana Bhattacharya is a feminist economist trained at Delhi University and Harvard University, and author of ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence’.

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Published: 29 Dec 2021, 10:24 PM IST
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