Invisible bodies, Invisible work

Women doing Laundry – Wiki Commons

The other day I saw P Sainath’s online photo-exhibition titled – ‘Visible work, Invisible women’ on People’s Archive of Rural India. Sainath’s lens captured in black and white the myriad forms of work that women, young and old, perform everyday across rural India. Whether it’s back-breaking paddy transplantation under the hot sun watched over by the farm owner (a male, of course) or collecting tendu leaves in the forest, or carrying heavy bundles of woods on her head, or stirring boiling molasses in a big vat, or just simply walking the buffalo back from the field—the frames captured the multitude and diversity of everyday work in women’s lives in rural India.  While Sainath titles his photo collection ‘visible’ work, ‘invisible’ women, he doesn’t quite elaborate on it except in one frame where a woman carrying a huge stack of hay on her head is hardly visible as she walks up a steep hill – her work visible, but as a person she is not. But what Sainath’s wonderful photo essay did not speak of is the invisibility of women’s work. Of how the work that women do in the everyday is perceived and gets naturalised that makes their bodies, their labour and their work invisible, devalued and unwaged.
Last month, World Bank released a policy paper titled – Precarious Drop Reassessing Patterns of Female Labor Force Participation in India, which noted that “female labour force participation dropped by 19.6 million women from 2004-05 to 2011-12” and that “53 percent of this drop occurred in rural India, among those ages 15 to 24 years”. Using National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data from 1993-94 to 2011-12 and the census data, the paper notes that “19.13 million female workers had left the labor force during the short period of 2004-05 to 2009-10”. The NSSO data, as has been noted by the authors of the paper, uses a classification of activities that determines a person’s ‘activity status’ that categories if a person is performing an economic or non-economic activity at a given point of time. The activity status is categorized in three ways – ‘working or being engaged in economic activity (work); being not engaged in economic activity (work) but either making tangible efforts to seek work or being available for work if work is available; being not engaged in any economic activity (work) and also not available for work’. There are further layers into these categories in terms of number of days a person has ‘worked’ to be considered a worker or a non-worker. These categorizations of activities or what is considered work or non-work is hugely problematic and as Sainath’s photographs illustrates it is a bit hard to imagine that women are not working or withdrawing from labor force participation especially in rural India. Also there is a large population of women who are engaged in ‘unpaid’ work in family run enterprises, which although is recognized by NSSO as work however remains unwaged.

In 2014, in a newspaper article economists C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh had asked a provocative question when the NSSO large sample survey data on employment was released. They asked: “Are women really working less in India?”   By asking this critical question, they sharply challenged the very premise of what constitutes work. Especially in the context of women from impoverished working households (rural and urban) in India. They pointed out how NSSO categorizes ‘domestic duties’ and activities that include ‘free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed, etc.), sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc. for household use’ under categories 92 and 93 as non-work. These activities—essential for household consumption, reproduction of families, societies, production of labor-power—are mostly done by women and are considered as non-work (as it is unpaid) or non-economic activity by NSSO. Therefore, much of the work being done by women in Sainath’s photographs will become ‘invisible’ and non-work as per NSSO.

In fact, feminists have long argued for ‘expanding’ the definition of work to include reproductive work, work of politics and community activism. A feminist lens has opened up analysis of diverse sites of work – ‘formal’ workplaces, homework and ‘unregulated’ sites, challenging the binaries of public-private; inside-outside; work-non-work to expose how these binaries profoundly impact women’s lives.  Women have challenged the way in which certain activities have remained devalued and the bodies that perform those activities remain invisible. As Silvia Federici has written:

These are the devaluation of entire spheres of human activity, beginning with the activities catering to the reproduction of human life, and the ability to use the wage to extract work also from a large population of workers who appear to be outside the wage relations: slaves, colonial subjects, prisoners, housewives, and the students. (Federici, 2012:8)

In 1972, in Padua Italy, a campaign for Wages for Housework was launched by a group of women including Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Silvia Federici amongst others that strongly advocated that the state should recognize domestic work as ‘work’ – ‘an activity that should be remunerated as it contributes to the production of the labor force….thus enabling every other form of production to take place’ (Federici, 2012:8).  The Campaign’s moot objective was not to reduce wages for housework to mere “lump of money” but it was a political struggle, ‘a political perspective’ to revolutionize the lives of women, locating it in the sphere of social reproduction, what Federici calls “Revolution at Point Zero”. As Federici explains: “the circuit of capitalist production, and the “social factory” it produced, began and was centered above all in the kitchen, the bedroom, the home…” (2012:7).  Feminist political struggles such as these challenged the very premise of house or domestic work being “women’s labour” and they certainly did not demand for more work for women but for wages for the work that they already did.

What do the numbers not tell us?

The World Bank paper looks at various possible reasons, again based on NSSO data, that could explain the decline in the female labour force participation, especially amongst the young women. The paper tries to explain the trend by looking at factors such as education enrolment, marital status, social group and household income. Based on the NSSO data and previously done studies, the paper concludes that female labour force participation is “largely influenced by economic stability at home, rather than the traditionally held notions of social norms, educational attainment and age”. The argument being women are “secondary workers” who enter waged/paid work temporarily to support family income and as the household income gets stable or regular, they withdraw from the paid labor market and concentrate in “higher status production work at home”.

This is a classic mainstream economistic argument of how women move in and out of waged work as household income conditions changes over a period of time.  While it is important to look at data that could indicate certain trends, to interpret and draw conclusions from it without critically and qualitatively examining the various complex processes that influence women’s decision-making in the household and in society is highly problematic. Besides, as noted above, the very definition of what constitutes work/non-work, economic/non-economic activity itself is deeply flawed in the NSSO categories. The data do not reveal the often complex and constrained gendered expectations that women have to negotiate in making decisions to enter and withdraw from waged labor relations.

WHY women enter or withdraw from “paid” labor relations perhaps cannot be fully explained without looking into multiple processes including that of migration, urban/rural evictions, displacements, access to assets, different forms of work/labor relations, quality of work/employment, neoliberal economic-developmental polices of the state and international agencies, global scale of expropriation, privatization of natural resources, commons etc.

But the even bigger, more radical question is still about women’s unpaid labour and its relationship with what we consider work. There needs to be a radical shift in the notion of work and how bodies that perform different types of work are valued or devalued. The demand for paying wages to women for doing housework is not to reduce it to a “thing” as Federici points out, but a political struggle to demystify the devaluation of women’s labour and bodies in a capitalist society. Therefore, what’s more revolutionary than actually paying women for the work that they do?


Federici, Silvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

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