This week, the world was noticeably confused on how to react when a woman in China was awarded $7,700 USD for five years of housework as part of a divorce settlement. Many were ecstatic to see the first case that recognised housework as labour and set a monetary value on it. Many more, however, failed to understand how paying for housework is a step towards equality.

Housework is unpaid labour. It is also a form of discrimination. As the presiding Judge Feng Miao noted, it is impossible to divide property and housework. Housework ‘can improve the ability of the other spouse to achieve personal, individual academic growth, and this is not reflected in the tangible property.’ China has recently acknowledged this in a civil code, allowing a person to claim compensation during a divorce if they were the primary carer for children, elderly parents or did most of the unpaid household work. 

This support for improving unpaid labour is provided not just by the government but also by the public. In an online poll carried out by the Chinese media outlet Phoenix Weekly, 94% said the compensation was not enough. This support could also be seen in the comments section of the poll: ‘to keep yourself, don’t get married or give birth’, ‘The key thing about being a full-time wife is that you lose your career growth opportunities,’ and ‘I’m a bit speechless […] In Beijing, hiring a nanny would cost more than 50,000 yuan per year’. 

The issue of unpaid labour is universal. According to UN Women, before the pandemic, for every one hour of unpaid work done by a man, three hours were done by a woman. This has now doubled. That’s 312 hours individually, 16 billion hours worldwide, that could have been spent earning money, contributing to the economy or in education. Whilst women have increased their presence in the workplace, the gender pay gap means that women are often lower earners and their work is considered less worthwhile. In a world where financial worth is prized above all, adding unpaid labour to the equation means a woman’s contribution becomes even more undervalued.

These inequalities have been drastically increased by the global pandemic. Whilst women have been affected less by coronavirus physically, UN Women have suggested that gender equality has been set back by 25 years, in part due to unpaid labour. In the US, 865,000 women left the workforce in September compared to 200,000 men. The 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa provides an ominous warning of what happens to gender equality during health crises. Men’s income returned to pre-epidemic levels much faster than women’s. This was made worse when childhood vaccination rates declined as a result of the epidemic, and women had to take time off work to care for children who had contracted preventable diseases. These factors, when added to the rise in global cases of domestic violence and maternal mortality that result from diverted services, deepen gender inequality to unthinkable levels. 

The remuneration of domestic unpaid labour is not just about valuing women’s work financially. Equality is about independence. It means that women have the freedom to make decisions that can benefit their lives. If the majority of their work is unpaid, this is not achievable. And it cannot only be recognized retrospectively. If the woman in China hadn’t divorced her husband, would she ever have been compensated? Would she ever know how much her work was worth?

UN Women has called on governments and businesses to bring in more paid family leave, but this alone will not solve the problem of unpaid domestic labour. We need a radical global shift on what gender roles are, if and when they are different, and more importantly, when they’re the same. As we try to move towards a post-gender society, we need to look at all levels of discrimination. China is making a move towards this when it comes to unpaid labour, but time will tell whether the rest of the world will build upon this.

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance...