Universal basic income and reproductive labor

Universal basic income and reproductive labor
Universal basic income and reproductive labor

By Sophie Lively

See original post here.

June of this year (2023) saw the announcement of two proposed UBI micro-pilot schemes in England, one in Jarrow, North East, and the other in East Finchley, north London. Once deemed ‘radical’, this particular proposal would see an unconditional basic income of £1,600 paid individually to participants for a specified period of time. Important features are that a UBI is an unconditional, regular cash payment paid directly to the individual, as opposed to the household, irrelevant of income status. Whilst criticism remains, across the political spectrum UBI has been touted as a contender for addressing poverty and guarding against problems of the future such as climate breakdown and loss of jobs due to automation and artificial intelligence.

Whilst the notion of a UBI is not new, with trials having already been implemented in places such as Alaska, North Carolina, California, Canada, Finland, Germany, Spain, and Kenya, there has been increased interest in the UK, particularly post-Covid. In July 2022, Wales introduced a pilot offering more than 500 care leavers £1,600 per month for a period of two years to support their transition to adult life. The ability to have this unconditional payment from state to citizen could have a wealth of benefits – financial, emotional and physical, all which may have positive outcomes not only for the individual but for society as a whole. Whilst the aforementioned benefits are regularly discussed, less so is the transformative potential of a UBI with regards to women and reproductive labour.

Women and work

Gendered divisions of labour have long been unequal and reproductive labour disproportionately burdens women and girls. Indeed, an Oxfam report highlighted that globally, women and girls do more than three-quarters of all unpaid care work which, if valued at minimum wage, would ‘represent a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry’.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, attention was drawn to this, with research from UCL revealing that women undertook twice as much home-schooling as men during the lockdown. Additionally, some evidence showed that when it came to household chores responsibility was more equal. However, this was quickly dispelled, with a study  by the World Economic Forum which found that by September 2020 ‘gender divisions had been re-established and women disproportionately held the majority of the domestic burdens’. Whilst such discussions have ceased in mainstream discourse, this wasn’t the first time the relationship between women and unpaid work has been highlighted. 

Wages for housework

Founded by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Silvia Federici and Brigitte Galtier, the 1970s Wages for Housework’s (WfH) campaign was a crucial moment in the widespread dialogue around women and labour. Attempting to have reproductive labour gain legitimacy politically, this grassroots campaign provided an intersectional, anti-capitalist and international feminist network across both the global north and global south. Seeking to disrupt power relations and redistribute wealth gained, the WfH campaign challenged an entrenched order in which women’s, mostly unnoticed, essential domestic work goes ‘undervalued, unremunerated or underpaid’. It demanded that ‘caring labour, mostly done by women, is not biological destiny or ‘love’, but – under capitalism – work that should receive a wage.’ Their first campaign was to keep family allowance in women’s hands as the government at the time ‘intended to transfer it to men’s pay packets’.

However, there have been subsequent concerns around providing a ‘wage’ for women’s unpaid labour. Such concern includes the potential for women to become institutionalised at home and for unpaid work to be commodified, thus further embedding them in the capitalist machine. Despite being 50 years on, the WfH campaign can offer an alternative perspective, reiterating the continued struggle to have women’s reproductive labour adequately recognised. Whilst acknowledging flaws, a UBI could go some way in creating such recognition, subsequently increasing agency and offering immediate relief for many in the current cost of living crisis.

Reproductive labour today

Today, women around the world continue to bear the brunt of unpaid domestic work along with child-care and elder-care. In 2016, the ONS reported that in the UK ‘women carry out an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men’ and a later study by the Women’s Budget Group revealed that on top of this, austerity measures have hit women hardest. It is important to reiterate that this isn’t something new; such gendered divisions are long-standing, and whilst commendable work has been done in order to address gender inequality here in the UK and globally, divisions persist.

We have seen a number of policies in recent years aimed at women and labour. Despite not explicitly acknowledging the structural inequalities women face due to patriarchal power imbalances, their focus has been specifically on productive labour. But such policies fall far short from the transformative change needed. In 2015, Shared Parental Leave was introduced, but figures from Maternity Action reveal that an estimate of only 3 – 4% of eligible fathers have taken up the opportunity. In this year’s Spring Budget, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that from 2024 we would see a ‘revolution in childcare’, which he claimed, amongst other things, would ‘remove barriers to work for nearly half a million parents with children under 3 in England not working due to caring responsibilities’, with an emphasis on reducing ‘discrimination against women’. However, such a pledge comes with a plethora of its own issues. Indeed, CEO of the Early Years Alliance criticised the plan as he told Sky News, ‘such a policy would do little, if anything, to lower costs for parents’. Further criticisms have included several childcare providers raising concerns around recruitment, alongside risks regarding increasing child-to-adult ratios. Such policies merely tinker around the edge of an already failing system which puts economic growth above all else. They do little, if anything, to address structural inequalities women experience with regards to both paid and unpaid work and go no way to increasing agency.

Additional benefits for women

Enhancing women’s autonomy, both individually and as part of a family unit, allows for greater choice for women in both private and public spaces. Whilst the economic benefits of a UBI are regularly touted, such a proposal could also aid in both valuing and rewarding those who want to be full time care givers – either to their own children, disabled people or elderly relatives – echoing the WfH calls of the 1970s.

Going beyond the idea of wages for housework, there could be additional benefits for women. Assisting in avoiding the ‘unemployment traps’ that recipients of welfare may experience whereby they ‘risk losing their benefits should they increase their labour force participation’, a UBI offers a secure, unconditional minimum floor irrespective of changing circumstances. Such a ‘trap’ is shown to be of particular detriment to single parents, around 90% of which are women, as well as people with disabilities . Jason B. Whiting, writing in The Institute for Family Studies highlights the financial constraints many women experiencing domestic violence face, and the individual recipient stipulation of UBI means that women could ‘be empowered with their own financial independence, and increased access to necessary resources to escape abusive situations’. Helping to reshape entrenched patriarchal gender norms which continue to rest on the assumption of a heteronormative family consisting of a male breadwinner and female caregiver, could have transformative effects at both the individual and wider societal level, allowing women to have greater choice with regards to their own labour.

It’s no panacea but it may offer a way ahead

UBI is in no way a utopian dream. Alone, it would be insufficient in challenging the many barriers women experience with regards to both reproductive and productive labour. It is vital that our public services are adequately funded and any implementation of a UBI should go alongside the ongoing struggle for an improvement in workers’ rights and conditions. Of course there are flaws, but in contrast to meagre offerings from the current government, a UBI could provide increased support and agency for all.

With the exciting potential that the North East could be home to a pilot, perhaps now is the time to renew discussions regarding the gendered capabilities of a UBI. Whilst valid argument remains regarding the risk of entrenching and exploiting women’s unpaid work, the current cost of living crisis, broken education system, crumbling social care system and continued gender pay gap are just some of the reasons that UBI may not only have positive, widespread and impactful outcomes for all, but have the added benefit of contributing to the ongoing struggle towards a more just and gender equal society. 

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