Debates about paying for housewife labour at home have raged for many years. In most capitalist countries, housewives perform almost all housework (cooking, childcare, cleaning, etc). This debate is mostly steered by feminists who argue that the work at home deserves to be paid for. This is the position promoted by many feminist authors, among them Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James. The two feminists wrote a pamphlet1 in the 1970s that advocated for the housewives’ wage payment by insisting that women’s domestic labour is usually appropriated or exploited by their husbands and fathers.
So, is women’s household labour a form of exploitation? The answer to this question would require us to define labour. Labour is any activity aimed at meeting human material needs. Not all human needs can be met directly by nature. Therefore, human beings need to act on nature by changing objects of nature to satisfy their needs. They do this by using their bodies, i.e., brain, eyes, ears, hands, and legs in production activities. In simple terms, labour activity is the people’s struggle to tame nature to produce material needs.
Human beings also participate in other socially important activities. These activities include teaching, caring for the sick, singing, fighting, or advocating for the rights of the oppressed class. This type of labour is also important to society. Presently, labour is largely associated with commodity production, i.e., production of goods for sale and exchange.
A commodity is the product of human labour but not every product of labour is a commodity, for example, cooking food for the family. A product of labour becomes a commodity only when it is exchanged with another product through sale. A commodity has a use value (the utility of a thing) and an exchange value (the amount of one commodity that one can get for another).
All commodities have one thing in common, and that is that they are products of human labour. Karl Marx argued that the value of a commodity reflects the labour that went into producing it. He stated that labour is measured by the time taken to produce the commodity.2 This, however, does not mean that under capitalism, for example, the labour of 10 lazy people who spend six hours producing a commodity is the same as that of 10 active people working the same number of hours. This is because, as Marx argued, time is measured by socially necessary labour time, that is, the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. Therefore, in a capitalist system, there is an average time that has to be considered as far as the measurement of wages is concerned.
Surplus Value (Profit)
When capitalists sell a commodity, they normally sell it at its value, that is the cost of raw materials and labour. However, they end up getting a greater value than the sum of the values of the commodities used to produce it. This greater value is what Marx termed as surplus value. But where does the surplus value come from? Marx answers this by stating that the capitalist gets control of the labour power of workers through the employment contract. Once the contract is signed, workers lose control and the product they produce goes to the capitalists.
When paying wages to workers the capitalist only pays the amount that can sustain them and their families (providing the daily necessities of life such as food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education and entertainment.) and remains with the balance of what the commodity fetched when it was sold. To give an example, a worker employed for eight hours a day gets paid only for the four hours that are needed to produce the daily necessities, but the capitalist takes all that was produced in eight hours, thus robbing the workers of their four hours’ wage.
This is where the profit that the capitalist brags about comes from. Capitalists audaciously argue that since workers agreed to sign the contract willingly, they – the capitalists — have the right to all the products of labour. They conveniently ignore the fact that capitalism — the system — has dispossessed the workers of the means of production and left them with only their labour power. The workers are forced to sell their labour power as a commodity to capitalists in order to survive. In a nutshell, capitalism thrives on the exploitation of workers by taking their surplus value.
Productive and Unproductive Labour under Capitalism
Marx defined productive labour as labour used to generate surplus value3 For example, labour performed by a chef employed by a capitalist who owns a hotel is productive labour. Unproductive labour on the other hand is the one that does not generate surplus value,4 for instance, the labour of a chef employed to cook for a rich family. This labour, though important, does not produce surplus value; it is meant to meet the needs of the rich family and not necessarily for exchange purposes.
As Marx said, the mere direct exchange of money for labour, therefore, does not transform money into capital or labour into productive labour. This may sound confusing, as in most instances, productive labour is associated with the production of useful things or services for the benefit of society. However, the capitalist system does not see it that way. The chef may sometimes get hungry and prepare food for himself. This type of labour is neither productive nor unproductive since it lies outside the capitalist economy.
The campaign for the payment of household labour has over the years gained currency and been embraced by many feminists. This issue has arisen in matrimonial matters handled by the judiciary in Kenya. For instance, in November 2021, High Court Judge Teresia Matheka, while presiding over the distribution of matrimonial property in a divorce, ruled that being a housewife is a full-time job, and should, therefore, attract some form of compensation.5
For us to be clear about whether or not housewives are exploited by their spouses and hence the need for them to be paid, we need to revisit the concept of the labour theory of value which was developed by classical economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and further by Karl Marx. As has been demonstrated, exploitation only occurs when surplus value is extracted from the producer (worker), and surplus value is the unpaid labour time while the wage can be termed as the amount paid to the worker to keep him productive so that he can meet his daily subsistence and that of his family.
This, therefore, means that the wife, when performing laborious housework, which is very useful but unproductive according to the labour theory of value, is being indirectly exploited by the capitalist who has employed her husband who provides her basic needs. For example, the wage of a construction worker who is employed by a construction company constitutes his maintenance expenses, which include that of his housewife who is left at home to cater to the family’s needs.
It is therefore ridiculous, given the foregoing, to advocate for the housewife to earn wages for what some feminists term as unpaid household labour. Today, there are quite a number of women single parents who also combine career work with domestic work, bringing up their children single-handedly. If we were to use the same argument, who would be obliged to pay them for their domestic labour?
A housewife can only be exploited if she is contracted by the capitalist to produce surplus value, and this is happening in modern times. The introduction of machines in workplaces after the industrial revolution made it easier to bring women into social production. The number of women in social production has been growing year after year, and this has somehow uplifted them and benefited capitalists as they take advantage of lowering the wages of all workers. Lowering wages means less money is available to spend on basic needs. No wonder today, many couples are pushed into social production to create a surplus for the capitalists.
Currently, in the family setting, capitalists are no longer exploiting the husband solely but the wife as well owing to the patriarchy embedded in capitalism. Women continue to be oppressed and their work devalued even with the ever-great sacrifices they make. However, it is important to note that domestic labour is unproductive in a capitalist sense. But this does not mean that we close our eyes when injustices against women occur. Rather we should continue challenging especially those practices that degrade women.
This situation demands that all of us deeply examine the root cause of women’s oppression, which has enslaved them in domestic household labour. Failing to do so could produce reactionary solutions like demanding a wage for the housewife, which may lead to household conflicts. Some of these solutions not only result in antagonism but also reinforce the capitalist system that is the cause of women’s subjugation and troubles. Understanding the root cause helps in finding the solutions to the predicament that befalls the working class: both women and men.
It is well known that the miseries faced by the working class, especially women, are connected to the capitalist system. The major task for all people is to unite and struggle for a better society where there will be neither inequality nor exploitation, and that society is socialist. The socialist state, as Iris Cremer said,6 will establish the formal legal equality for women and men, and will go on to establish the material conditions for equality to become a reality, and for women to achieve economic independence.
The material conditions for equality can be established by involving women in social production. Women’s participation in social production will raise the political consciousness that will help them to get rid of backward prejudices and customs. The socialist state will also free women from domestic slavery and household drudgery through the establishment of social industry and the nationalisation or socialisation of the economy so that more women would directly become involved in public production. It would establish childcare centres, nurseries, and kindergartens for women in their workplaces and neighbourhoods. As Karthy Sharp7 said in her speech in 1971, the socialist state will bring about a change from private childcare to the care and education of children being a public responsibility.
Marx, K (1974). Capital Volume 1, A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. 9th ed. Moscow: Progress Publishers, Chapter 1-24.
Marx, K (1969). Theories of Surplus Value – Volume 4 of Capital Part 1. 2nd ed. Moscow: Progress Publishers,
Rule, E (eds.) (1974). Marxism and the Emancipation of Women. Britain: Progress Publishers,
Booth, A. and Sewell, R. (2017). Understanding Marx’s Capital: A reader’s guide. UK: In Defence of Marxism, 7 Chapter 16-22 Wages.