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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 24, 2013

Domestic Service and Gender Equality: An Unavoidable Problem for the Feminist Debate on Basic Income

Camila Vollenweider
From the journal Basic Income Studies


The debate on the desirability of a Basic Income (BI) for women has polarized between those who defend the measure as a way of reducing gender inequalities and those who believe that the policy could worsen the gender gap. This article argues for the former position, introducing the problem of domestic service, a paradigm of inequality not only between the genders but also among women. First, different dimensions of the “domestic service problem” are discussed in order to challenge the view that domestic service could be a “solution” for some gender inequalities. Second, it is argued that BI could significantly reduce outsourcing of reproductive work (at least in the private sphere) and could encourage women to demand equality in the home and a better public provision of care services. These effects of a BI could lead to a fairer overall system in terms of gender and class.


I am grateful for the enriching comments and suggestions offered by the peer reviewers of this article. I should also like to thank María Julia Bertomeu, Daniel Raventós, David Casassas, Jurgen De Wispelaere and Julie Wark for their help and thoughts in the text.


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  1. 1

    The double working day is, of course, a reality for all those women who work in the productive sphere as well. The difference between the double shift of the domestic worker and that of the woman working in the productive sphere is that the former does exactly the same kind of work (domestic) in two (or more) different homes, her own and someone else’s, unpaid in one and badly paid in the other.

  2. 2

    For the worker, it is totally irrelevant whether or not the work he or she performs in exchange for a wage is destined for the production of wealth.

  3. 3

    This study estimates that the figure for non-declared cleaning work in private homes in Europe is somewhere between 50% and 80%.

  4. 4

    It also frequently happens that wages paid vary significantly in any one place. This is due to the informal nature of the arrangement and the scant presence of female domestic workers in union organizations.

  5. 5

    As one peer reviewer of this article has pertinently pointed out, the demand for domestic workers is not just a matter of the gender-based division of labor but it also obeys other variables like “lack of accommodation in the workplace, high or diversified aspirations, lack of institutionalized support for the care of dependent people”. Nonetheless, gender-based division of labor continues to be a major explanatory factor in a context like the present one in which women want or need to participate in the productive sphere. In addition, for some women, being able to rely on someone with whom one can come to the most flexible of working arrangements which are also highly diverse in their obligations – in contrast with the kind of availability offered by a specialized institution – could seem more appealing since such an employee has more affinity with the housewife’s role because of the versatility and aspect of personalized service in this situation. However, using institutions and contracting domestic help are not mutually exclusive. For a more exhaustive analysis of the determining factors of the demand for domestic services, see Vollenweider (2007), Windebank (2006) and Tijdens et al. (2003).

  6. 6

    While recognition of many non-qualified jobs may not be total it would be greater than that received by housekeeping, although there are other types of work – for example, domestic service and perhaps legal prostitution – in which the question of recognition is not clear.

  7. 7

    For a more thorough discussion of this point, see Bertomeu and Vollenweider (2011), especially Section 3.

  8. 8

    It should not be forgotten that historical indexation also alludes to other kinds of society (past or possible). In other modes of production, the notion of work can be (and has been) more inclusive – but hazier also – while it has frequently been presented as the opposite of the concepts of leisure and rest. It is, therefore, important to stay with a socioculturally indexed perspective in which the conceptual link between work and remunerated activity is a very recent development in the history of humanity and exclusive to capitalist societies.

  9. 9

    Note that “market” tends to be conceptually situated both in the public sphere (as opposed to family) and in the private sphere (as opposed to State).

  10. 10

    Of course the ideal of domesticity could only be put into practice by women dependent on men who were sufficiently wealthy (usually father, husband or brother) to maintain them, yet it was established as a normative horizon for working-class women as well. Indeed with the introduction of the so-called welfare states of Europe plus general improvements in the well being of the population and in working conditions, many working-class women were able to leave their jobs and stay at home as housewives thanks to a substantial increase in the family income. They, thus, met the normative ideal of domesticity and reduced the double job burden to a single one, although paying the price of greater dependence on the man. As Jannsens (2004, p. 139) notes, “Only then was it possible put into practice, in large sectors of the working class as well, the middle-class ideal of the bourgeois family based on female domestic life and male wage earning”.

  11. 11

    These authors and others who forcefully advocate the advantages for women of earning an income in the market as opposed to receiving a guaranteed unconditional income – even as a complement – are most probably thinking about decent jobs or at least those that are considerably better than, for example, the tasks of domestic service. Here, the point is that it is somewhat naïve to suppose that capitalism could provide training and jobs of a sufficiently high quality for all women. Moreover, and in particular, the patrimony-based oppression of women in our times also has its roots in exploitation by male and female employers in the so-called productive sphere.

  12. 12

    This argument links up conceptually with that which criticizes BI for supposedly encouraging free riding.

  13. 13

    For an interesting discussion on the question of including or not including immigrants among the beneficiaries of a BI, see Boso and Vancea (2012). With regard to the theme of this article, it would appear that if a BI is not applicable to immigrants as well, when they constitute the main source of labor for domestic service, the bargaining power of workers in the sector – vis-à-vis their husbands and, in particular, with their male or female employers – could be affected still more, because this would open up the breach between citizens and non-citizens, if BI is taken to be a right of citizenship.

Published Online: 2013-07-24

©2013 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston