John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Payment for household jobs

The BBC put up an article in their Business section today: Housewife 'would be paid £30,000'. This is apparently reporting on a survey from the All Join On! website, although it's not clear whether the suggested salary came from the BBC or the other site. Personally, I'm a bit dubious about it. Last year I criticised the BBC for lazy reporting (regarding an event in comics), and I don't think they've improved much since then.

Since I try to do some basic research, I visited the website, but you can't really see anything without signing in, so I created an account there. Their terms and conditions are interesting, particularly since they don't allow you to repeat content elsewhere (to avoid infringing their intellectual copyright). On the other hand, the final line on that page says "Last update: 30th February 08". I see two problems with this:
a) Today is 20th February 2008.
b) There are only 29 days in February 2008.
Some people might question the rigorous fact checking that goes on at the site, but I wouldn't dream of being so churlish.

Once I logged in, I went to my profile page, and saw that my situation had defaulted to "Other". The full list of choices is:
"Shift Worker"
"Maternity Leave"
"Off Work Sick"
"Between Jobs"
"Stay at home parent"
Apparently full-time employment is too rare to warrant its own category, so I stuck with "Other". If the website is specifically aimed at people who are at home during the day then that's fair enough, but it's just described as a "free online club".

Anyway, the most relevant thing I can find on the site is this poll:
Housewives! Stay at home and look after house/family, or get a paid job?
However, there's not much there. There are two comments highlighted as most recent, but I can't see any way to view the rest of the debate, so maybe those are in fact the only two comments? Also, while the poll says that the results are currently split 50% each way, it doesn't say how many people have voted overall.

According to the BBC article: "A poll of 4,000 housewives for networking website suggested that the average mum worked for nearly nine hours a day every day." This doesn't seem to be the same question, but I can't find anything closer. However, the site as a whole is poorly organised. For instance, the top poll in the "Celebrities" section is "Do you like the way that you are treat if you are on the sick when it's not been your fault?" (sic). So, where did the BBC get their information? Their claims don't seem to bear any relation to the real content/structure of the website.

Still, leaving aside the problems of citations, how about the salary figures in the BBC article? I think there are several problems there.

Firstly, let's assume that the overall figure is correct, i.e. that "a housewife would earn almost £30,000 a year if she was employed to do all the same errands." Does this imply that she deserves an equivalent wage from her husband? No; at most, she'd have earned £15,000. (Incidentally, although the article talks about housewives, my opinions apply equally to anyone who stays at home all day, regardless of gender.) Taking an analogy, suppose that I shared a house with a friend, and we hired a window-cleaner at £10/week; we would each chip in £5/week for this. If I then decided to do the job myself, I could ask my friend to pay me the £5 that he would have paid the cleaner but I would only avoid paying the other £5 myself rather than actually getting that money as extra income. In other words, if you assume that both people benefit equally from the work that's done then you can only expect the person who does the work to get half the money.

I said "at most" in the previous paragraph, because the next issue is bills. When I've shared a house with flatmates, we split the cost of rent, heating, etc. between us, and each person paid for their own food. In a marriage, I'd say that if one person gives up work for shared benefit then it's not reasonable to expect them to contribute to the mortgage. On the other hand, if they have an income (and their spouse now has less money) then it seems fair for the house-spouse to pay their share of the bills.

Now let's take a closer look at how the salary was calculated. Adding up the time for all the tasks they mention, it comes to 526 minutes, i.e. 8 hours and 46 minutes, which roughly matches the "nearly 9 hours" they claim. Meanwhile, the total income per day would be £75.09; if the housewife does this 365 days a year, that's £27,407.85. I think it's a slight exaggeration to describe this as "almost £30,000", but presumably this means that they've listed all the relevant tasks.

More importantly, this assumes that the workload is constant every day; if household work is actually a full-time job then it would seem fair for both people to share the load at weekends, or for the person who normally works elsewhere to do other tasks (e.g. mowing the lawn). If the weekend work balances out, the housewife would only be working 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, which comes to £19,523.40. Halving that (as described above), we get £9,761.70 (before subtracting bills).

But wait; are the individual tasks really charged at a fair rate? I think it's important to compare like for like, and consider the skills that are needed to earn a particular salary. For instance, they refer to the cost of hiring a nanny. According to the London Nanny Agency, one qualification is "Advanced Diploma in Childcare & Education (equivalent to a Master’s Degree)". Does the average housewife have an equivalent qualification? Maybe just a GNVQ? Similarly, accountants need to pass ACCA exams, and London taxi drivers need The Knowledge of local streets. As for cooking, my standard meal preparation consists of "bung it in the oven for 20 minutes", which is hardly up to head chef standards; it might be more realistic to look at salaries for McDonalds or Pizza Hut. I think it would be fair to reduce the daily income from £75 to £50: that's £250/week, of which the housewife would get £125, and I'd expect that all to get wiped out by household bills.

So, am I saying that housewives should all toil on for no reward? No, not at all. Looking at my married friends, they've handled this in different ways; personally, I favour a communist approach, where both people are equal partners in the marriage and work together by choice. Looking at the novel "Skyfall" (by Harry Harrison), written in 1976, chapter 11 describes one housewife's concern about the family finances:

Irene Lewis was worried. She peered hesitantly through the shop window at the display under the golden letters COTTENHAM NEW TOWN BUTCHERS - KEENEST PRICES. Oh no they weren't. The prices were just terrible. Steak was unbelievable, stewing meat no better, mince was cheaper but it was all fat. But she had to get something. After a long day in the plant Henry expected a good tea - and he deserved it. He turned his entire pay packet over to her every week, holding back just a little for beer and cigarettes and maybe a few pence more for the pools. It was because he was such a fair man and never questioned her that she was worried now.

That basically sounds fair to me: each person gets a small amount of personal spending money, then the rest gets dumped into a shared pool to cover household expenses. The wage-earner contributes by bringing in money, and the person who stays at home contributes in other ways. Similarly, I don't think it's a good idea to base children's pocket money on them doing chores around the house; someone has to do those tasks, so it seems fair for them to help out with the washing up (when they're old enough).

Ultimately, this is probably going to be a delicate issue that each household will need to resolve for themselves, and it's something of a moot point for me while I'm single. However, I think that articles like the one on the BBC website are completely useless, and may in fact be actively harmful.
Tags: journalism, marriage

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