The Value of Loving Care

How do we put a price tag on what a homemaker gives up in terms of time, energy and highly possibly a good career? Penang Monthly investigates.

A homemaker, as defined by dictionaries, is a person who manages a household especially as a spouse and parent. Homemakers run various roles and tasks such as taking care of the children, sending them to school, planning the household budget based on the given allowance, cooking, cleaning, shopping, planning timetables, organising family get-togethers and planning recreation.

Often this work is taken for granted – there is an acceptance that homemaking is the norm, set in history, in culture, through religious practices, in tradition and through patriarchal thinking.

But with the changing demographics in Malaysia, the dependency ratio1 of elderly persons to adults has risen, meaning that an increasing number of older persons are dependent on fewer adults who can look after them. Adults can be caught in a “sandwich bind” between generations –they care for their own children, their parents, parents-in law, and in some cases, grandparents.

The average life expectancy of a Malaysian is 71 years;2 the life expectancy of females is 77 years. This longevity cycle can mean more people living longer with illnesses and fragility. Under these circumstances, more caregiving is needed, and dual-income families face a tough balancing act especially if they are in the lower or middle socio-economic brackets (B40 and M40) – they might not be able to afford paid help within the home or institutionally, on a long-term basis.

Divorces and remarriages also change the dynamics on the caregiving of older adult and younger children in new family structures. Decisions have to be made to save costs –should one spouse do full-time caregiving and minding the home, then the household expenditures are managed on a single breadwinner’s income. Some homemakers might be able to take on part-time work or remain in the workforce with flexible work arrangements, but the more caregiving responsibilities there are, the less time there is to work.3

In 2017 there were seven million people in the Outside the Labour Force (OLF) category,4 comprising homemakers, students, retirees, disabled persons and those not interested in looking for a job. In the OLF, there were 2.9 million homemakers (41%) with family responsibilities: nine out of 10 (2.83 million) were women, with a small proportion – 70,000 – consisting of men. The majority of women homemakers, 58% of them, are from urban areas; they are educated, and at least four out of 10 (1.17 million) have SPM qualifications.5

Yet, how many homemakers are married, single or divorced, and what are their ethnicities? On top of that, there could be homemakers working in the family business or in farms as unpaid family workers.

How Much Should Homemakers Make?

It is difficult to measure the work done by homemakers using a metrical approach – to itemise the work done by hours at work, the duties and the monetary value of the tasks. In 2012 India weighted its advocacy effort with a chart; however, this consistent analysis comes from the US, where a homemaker’s work is given a monetary value based on all the common tasks done.

In 2018 it was stipulated that her worth had moved her into the middle-income bracket as an earner,6 based on wage levels for each task. Table 1 shows, by task, the value pegged via hourly wages that women or men as full-time homemakers ought to receive if they were part of the workforce.

Studying the various roles done by a full-time mother clearly shows the market price for each of the tasks; the duration of that work; the monetary value; and the overall annual salary. In 2017 the highest earning tasks that mothers were doing were planning, being nurses and being fair judges; while the lowest value was for tasks such as drivers, personal care aides and interior designers.

Nancy Folbre, a well-known blogger and economist professor, concluded that based on the list of tasks, working women spent far more hours just working and getting on with home-related work: “They put in 25.9 hours a week in 2010, while men put in 16.8 – a difference of more than nine hours”,7 which indicates the increased economic production value by women who are in the workforce and are also homemakers.

Another study showed that a stay-at-home mother’s wage in 2016, when calculated, ought to be US$48,509 for a 40-hour work week; and the overtime hours – as in any work contract – of about 52 hours meant a further average of US$94,593, totalling US$143,102 (RM579,419) per year.8

This means a full-time mother’s wages are higher than what a woman gets for full-time work (US$90,223 – base salary averaged at US$52,685 and overtime averaged at US$$37,538). This is a scary scenario-mapping for the uninitiated, traditionalists and patriarchs – and astounding to many women, too.

Let’s look at the scenario for the same 40-hour work week for Malaysia’s 2.83 million homemakers if one were to peg it to monthly median wages for a 44-hour work week of a full-time officer, discounting overtime. In 2017 the monthly median salary for 159,300 women in the administrative and support service was RM1,200 per officer, who also does a few duties. The monthly median wage in Malaysia for 2017 was RM2,160.9

Should a full-time homemaker – with more hours and more tasks, as also itemised in the Mother’s Day Index chart – have a higher monetary estimate than the median monthly salary for the lower jobs in the workforce, or even the national monthly median salary? The total monetary cost in monetary appreciation for 2.83 million women is a monthly RM6.1mil (RM73mil per year), based on the national median salary relying only on the main indicator of the homemaker’s production value – an unpaid gain.

Disappearing Women

The Mother’s Day Index, with its own specificities and limitations, has thrown into the forefront the plethora of tasks homemakers do and skills they have. These skills are valued in the market place. In addition, some full-time homemakers have put on hold their professional and skilled work to opt to become stay-at-home mothers and wives.

This phenomenon of the “disappearing women” from the workforce highlights their lost wages. Reports cite that tertiary-educated women have monthly median salaries of RM3,400 while those with secondary education is recorded at RM1,750.10 Add to this wage, the years of service, the bonus and the promotions – it is a substantial loss, usually a personal choice or a Hobson’s choice if demands of caregiving in the home are high.

Poverty rates are falling but the number of households – due to increase in population numbers – has increased: three million households in 2016 were below the 60% median income – well below the poverty line. The Gini coefficient, which measured 0.4 from 2014 to 2016, shows declining labour income shares and rising income inequalities.11 The income share of the B40, M40, T2012 groups was 16.8%, 37.4%, 46.1% respectively, which means that income share was better distributed to the upper bands.13 But households living under the limit of the 60% median grew in 2016 to an estimated three million (43.5%) – an increase by 0.2 million households from 2014.

In essence, there are full-time mothers and fathers in the B40 and possibly in the M40 groups who opt out of work to care for their families as they have no further income to source for help and simultaneously cannot use their own skills to earn an income. If they are in the M40 group, they might not fulfil the criteria to receive financial resources; and with no monetary value placed on homemaking, they might just do the work, hoping for the best stretching on the dollar and for no major threats on family security.

Homemakers manage everything in the house – they’re also a tuition teacher, driver and therapist. If we calculate, that’s going to cost you a lot; you cannot find another woman who is not your wife who will do that for that kind of money.

Those impacted through poverty and are full-time mothers are mainly Malay homemakers, women in rural areas and women in complex family situations with children and parents who need long-term care. Depending on the income levels of the breadwinners, some women have very little or no savings at all; yet they are working hard, every day, in the home.

There is a paradox in appropriating monetary value to homemaking. There is a thriving industry for migrant domestic workers (often referred to as “maids”) and migrant caregivers, nursing aides and therapists who receive wages. There are guidelines on what they should be paid; databases that spell out their skills and wage requirements. Across a varied spectrum of tasks, they clean the homes, take care of the children, cook, administer medicine offer therapy to the ill; they get paid monthly, have medical insurance and have off days. Wages range between RM900 and RM1,500 for migrant domestic workers14 and RM7 to RM50 per hour15 for caregiving work. Most of the workers – citizens and migrant workers – are women.

Personal Costs

Full-time homemakers have personal costs they endure. There are no retirement benefits they can dutifully claim – much depends on the goodwill and generosity of their children and spouses. “You have no holidays, no pay, no overtime, no EPF, no SOCSO,” laments Chong Eng, chairman of the state’s Women and Family Development, Gender Inclusiveness and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee. “So if you think about it, it’s not a very good occupation – it’s not easier than being a working woman.”

In complex family situations much goodwill can go astray, and if one comes from the M40 and B40 groups, the reality could be that their children might hold less well-paid jobs, have their own families, and might even ask their parents to help mind the children, even if the homemaker has grown older with almost no livelihood maintenance.

The increased cost of living16 in Malaysia, especially in the cities, poses its own challenge as more money is needed to pay for food, transport and in certain cases, a home.

“Homemakers manage everything in the house – they’re also a tuition teacher, driver and therapist. If we calculate, that’s going to cost you a lot; you cannot find another woman who is not your wife who will do that for that kind of money,” says Chong Eng.

Women are prone to life-long disabling illnesses such as chronically painful osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and certain types of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety17 which need therapeutic care and maintenance. How well full-time homemakers can independently manage their own medical and personal care needs deliberating.

In 2011 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's study on 26 countries and three emerging economies showed that between 30% and 50% of all economic activities, based on a detailed time-use on homemaking activities, were not accounted for. This work is commonly referred to by economists as non-market household production. The study showed that these activities can contribute between 19% to South Korea’s GDP, for example, and at the higher end, 53% for Portugal.18

In other countries, by their own estimates, the total value of unpaid care and domestic work was estimated to be 39% of GDP in India, 35% in Tanzania and 31% in Nicaragua. In the US, the total value of unpaid childcare services alone was estimated to be 20% of the GDP in 2012.19

i-Suri encourages husbands to contribute to their wives’ retirement fund, with RM5 every month and the government contributing RM40 into her account. In a year she could get RM480 for her full-time work – a shadow of what her worth of work is, but nevertheless a good start.

The worth of the caregiving industry can be found through some figures: elderly care by skilled nurses would cost US$642bil, mostly shouldered by working adults, but when managed by unskilled paid care at minimum wages, it would cost a more affordable US$221bil.20 According to the America Time Survey, the average stay-at-home mother performs 18 hours of childcare and 30 hours of housework each week; in this sense, she is already a full-time professional in a US$4.7tril industry.21

Reviewing Policies

So how can societies support the unpaid care work that is so fundamental to both well-being and economic sustainability? It is sometimes argued that husbands, or the state, should pay “wages for housework” – a problematic proposition that would only serve to reinforce the stereotype that care and domestic work are women’s work, and that women have to stifle their aspirations for economic independence and public participation by becoming fulltime homemakers.22

Flexible work arrangements are becoming more common now in Malaysia.23 It is laudable that there is more flexibility in reporting times to and from work, and the civil service is taking up this initiative. But as a whole, it has to go beyond this and the national policies of maternity and paternity leave. It needs to include more days of leave for care of children, and elderly and disabled family members.

Flexible work hours demand much trust from employers, but it might keep more women moving into full-time homemaking work from becoming missing workers.

The government’s introduction of the i-Suri scheme for fulltime homemakers came into effect in August 2018; 359 065 women have since signed up.24 The second and third phases of the e-Kasih scheme will be implemented in early 2019 and early 2020, respectively.25 In the recent Budget 2019, the National Database on Poverty (e-Kasih) programme was given RM45mil for the homemakers’ retirement scheme. i-Suri encourages husbands to contribute to their wives’ retirement fund, with RM5 every month and the government contributing RM40 into her account. In a year she could get RM480 for her full-time work – a shadow of what her worth of work is, but nevertheless a good start.

Legislations and policies need to be reviewed. Homemakers need to have their years of service to their homes and to country be monetarily recognized under social protection schemes in a tangible manner based on number of children, hours spent and caregiving for the feeble. For example, in many European countries, parents who take on unpaid care work are given pension points depending on the years out of the labour force; care given based on the ages of the children; or the care for a disabled child or elderly parent.

To cite a case in point, in Norway, caregivers are given three points, which is an equivalent of US$511,797 per year in the supplementary earnings-related pension programme.26 In Malaysia, there is the Employees Provident Fund, which could become a good way to place incentives for the homemaking and caregiving industry.

But the government too needs to review its policies on migrant workers as it has become a much-relied upon workforce for the homemaking and caregiving industry. If women and men – for various personal and financial reasons – wish to become the family’s first resource for caregiving and housework, they need to receive similarly pegged wages as given to migrant domestic workers and care workers, if not more.

There is some level of financial literacy and budget planning that is taking place. However, it is difficult to separate this knowledge sharing from what investment companies and banks are doing with account holders. It is also difficult to assess the outreach into rural areas and to the homemakers in the B40 and M40 belts. Insurances for medical needs and emergencies are vital. To full-time homemakers who are caught in the B40 and M40 groups, there is a crucial need to become more aware of medical insurance, premiums for themselves and the affordability for their family members.

There is also e-Kasih and other schemes to help families in need. These include the Bank Negara Malaysia’s Fund for Affordable Homes; oil and gas subsidies; preliminary school aid; People’s Aid; electric billing rebates; and the National B40 Protection Scheme (free insurance, assistance for those with critical illnesses, replacement income for hospitalisation).

It is overall a mixture of progressive steps as well as an overall lack of serious engagement on the homemaking and caregiving industry to recognise the work of stay-at-home full-time homemakers and caregivers. There are still psychological blockages as tradition finds that the work of love cannot be monetarily valued. But the many individuals who are putting their whole lives into the wholesome development of their families need to be reassured that they will not be left out when they are contributing to the financial growth of their families and the country.

Braema Mathi is a visiting senior research fellow at Penang Institute. She is from Singapore and she loves the hills, the rivers and trekking – all of which are plentiful in Penang.

1A higher value for Malaysia and other countries means that employed people have to support more non-working people, either young or old. Definition: age dependency ratio is the ratio of dependents – people younger than 15 or older than 64 – to the working-age population (those aged 15-64). See
4, pg 293; Persons who are not classified as employed or unemployed are classified as outside the labour force (OLF).
5All data from DOSM’s Labour Force Survey Report, 2017.
9Salaries & Wages Survey Report, Malaysia, 2017; DOSM;
12By income base classifications: Top 20% (T20), Middle 40% (M40) and Bottom 40% (B40). The classification of the bands is based on monthly salary thresholds which, for each group, are RM3,000, RM6,275 and RM13,148 respectively.
13 into-T20-M40-and-B40-based-on-2016-household_fig2_323669658.
19 economy-86116.
22 economy-86116.
23 now-have-flexible-working-hours.
24 news-to-homemakers/#TBiSc9jd5gpZQixL.99.
26Social Security bulletin, Vol 71, No 4, 2011.

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