A Chinese woman was granted 50,000 yuan ($7,700) in compensation for household labor in a first of its kind divorce court ruling that has elicited a new sense of urgency in the covid-19 era.
NBC News reports that the landmark ruling was sparked by a new Civil Code instituted in China at the beginning of the year. The code states, “Where one spouse is burdened with additional duties for raising children, looking after the elderly or assisting the other spouse in his/her work, the said spouse has the right to request compensation upon divorce against the other party.”
Of course, these responsibilities are overwhelmingly allocated to women.
Chinese state media names the woman as Ms. Wang and said she married her husband, Mr. Chen, in 2015, before separating and then divorcing five years later. The couple have one son.
Judge Feng Miao of the Fangshan District People’s Court of Beijing divided the couple’s joint physical property and relied on the Civil Code to rule on “intangible property” resulting from the marriage, which included housework, she told state media on Monday.
The judge added that the courts would need to “accumulate experience” to determine the amount of compensation in such cases in the future.
While $7,700—roughly $4 a day—is a small payout for five years of household chores and child-rearing, this can at least act as a jumping-off point for cases down the line. The United States should take note.
In the United States, women perform four hours of unpaid labor per day on average; men perform about two and a half hours. While this gender disparity has gotten smaller over the last several decades, the disproportionality is still striking. Analysis by Oxfam has concluded that the cost of women’s unpaid labor worldwide as of 2020 stands at a whopping $10.5 trillion.
It’s worth noting that, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, nations with stronger social safety nets—like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—enjoy a much smaller household labor gap. Go figure.
The significance of this so-called shadow labor has been given new life during the covid-19 pandemic. In the last year, 2.3 million American women have dropped out of the workforce, largely to take care of children in absence of school and daycare. Meanwhile, Black women and Latinas have been hit hardest by pandemic unemployment, many of whom are likely tasked with taking care of domestic chores and child care on top of searching for a job.
This is no surprise to the feminists who addressed the housework gender gap in the 1970s.
A woman’s place in the workforce has dominated mainstream feminist discourse since the ‘80s—from workplace harassment, to glass ceilings, to She-E-O’s. Unpaid domestic labor never took a holiday, but its gravity certainly took a backseat, and it’s taken a global pandemic to put it back in the spotlight. This is what activist Selma James championed when she co-founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972, an effort to obtain demand wages for domestic work. Scholar Silvia Federici founded its offshoot, the Wages for Housework Committee, in New York in 1975. Since the pandemic began, both women have offered their take on the renewed relevance of their decades-old endeavor. In 2020, James wrote an op-ed for the Independent, noting that the $10.5 trillion Oxfam stat “urges us to get an education and thus a better-paid job rather than urging governments to pay us for this mountain of work.” She added, “Women did not form a movement to eliminate caring but the dependence, isolation, servitude, invisibility and almost universal discrimination that society imposes on the unwaged carer.”
And just last week, Federici was the focus of a New York Times profile about women, labor, and how both the Committee’s mission and her past writings have never been more relevant:
[Federici] said she was occasionally surprised that people are calling her up now to talk about things she wrote 20 or 30 years ago. But she long suspected that the dangers of devaluing care work would eventually materialize into a crisis too big to ignore. “The pre-existing condition is a system that makes life intolerable and unhealthy for millions of people,” she said, her words muffled slightly by her scarf. “It is a system that is not working — that is the main pre-existing condition.”
The promises of liberal feminism have never sounded more hollow as the huge population of women who were left out of this vision entirely has grown. Gender parity in the work force (signified by equal representation or even equal pay) never materialized, and has been set back generations by the unsolved problem of domestic labor. These issues are gaining traction in the halls of power — not because they are new, but because they now affect even middle- and upper-class women, particularly white women. Similarly, a broad interest in socialism hasn’t come about because capitalism has only just begun to harm workers, but because the gig economy and a vanished social safety net have broadened whom they harm.
“The lesson we have learned in this process is that we cannot change our everyday life without changing its immediate institutions and the political and economic system by which they are structured,” Federici writes in her book “Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.” There are models for resisting “a social system committed to the devaluation of our lives,” she argues. There are ways to restore that value, relocating it where it was all along.
Divorce payouts shouldn’t be the primary means by which women receive compensation for their unpaid labor, but it’s a start, one that hopefully won’t fade away as covid-19 does.