UBI: Unpaid Labour and Gender Relations

We need to value care and help move society away from an unjust system that advantages men over women.

Author: Allie Heny

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is “an income paid by a political community to all its members on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement” (Van Parijs, 2004: 8). 

While the details vary, this definition remains constant in discourse surrounding UBI. One of the chief motivations for implementing a UBI is that it would redistribute economic capital. This capital is traditionally associated with participation in the labour market, a social realm historically dominated by men; masculinity is both implicitly and explicitly ingrained in the structure and meaning of the labour market. For those members of society who are unable to contribute traditionally to the labour market, state support primarily comes in the form of welfare benefits such as healthcare and childcare, or means-tested payments such as Universal Credit. The masculine sphere of the labour market is idealised, and allows men (particularly white, able-bodied men) to be economically and socially autonomous and independent. Other social groups are cast as dependents through their association with the welfare state. This association leads to denigration as ‘free-loaders’, or more implicitly confines these social groups (e.g. women, the disabled, long-term illness sufferers) to a lower social status than those that can contribute to the labour market. I intend to here offer a discussion of the effects of UBI upon gender relations, with focus on autonomy and caregiving.

There is often a tendency in literature surrounding gender and capital to present the labour market as the natural way of constructing economic relations. Two models predominate in policy debates: universal breadwinner model and universal caregiver model. To challenge the tradition of the male parent/partner as the sole breadwinner, the former seeks to free women from domestic labour by commodifying caregiving (e.g. childcare/domestic labour/elderly care), with services aimed at allowing women to participate on equal terms with men in the labour market. Conversely, the universal caregiver model, in theory, allows both partners to participate equally in both domestic and labour spheres by pushing men to share caregiving responsibilities, thus challenging women’s confinement to the domestic sphere. Both these models are androcentric (centred on a male-oriented perspective of the world) in that they assume that gender parity can only be achieved by prioritising and focusing on the labour market, thus degrading domestic labour and presenting it as inferior. The breadwinner model is particularly problematic as it outsources domestic labour. This means that whilst women from the professional or middle classes will be freed from caregiving responsibilities, this work will be handed to paid workers, many of whom will be from less advantaged social positions. Domestic labour will still primarily be provided by women, but class and racial inequalities will become more significant in how this work is distributed. The alternative caregiver model also fails to change perceptions of domestic labour, and it relies on a heteronormative ideal of relationships: its primary focus remains the redistribution of men’s work, the ‘ideal’ form of labour.

Similar issues are presented in discourse surrounding the welfare state (for example, social investment theory advocates state welfare as investment in citizens, who are considered future commodities) and UBI (the recent experiment in Finland was primarily discussed according to its effects on labour market participation). It is clear that a redistribution of capital cannot be enacted on the terms of the labour market, which is inseparable from the patriarchy and will never offer equality. The more we idealise paid labour the more we exclude those members of our society for whom such labour is not possible.

I now intend to centralise gender relations and autonomy in a discussion of UBI. Rather than use the individualistic model that is presented in normative labour market discourse, I will refer to autonomy as a concept that is compatible with feminist principles of community and unity. I will argue that it is necessary to reformulate our societal understanding of value, which, as an abstract concept, must be open to interpretation by the autonomous citizen. This paper will advocate for UBI as the fairest way to redistribute power from institutions to people, granting greater autonomy to those unable to participate in the labour market.

The gendered division of labour

The primacy of labour market participation in our society is caused by the formal relationship between work and income, which generates a distinction between wage and welfare, or public and private sphere. UBI challenges this relationship and its implications by materially valuing activities restricted to the private sphere, which are often left uncompensated. The definition of ‘work’, those activities that require payment, is linked to the gendered division of labour, in which men work and women care. This work is second nature to men, suggests Susan Himmelweit (1999: 28), yet for women caring is natural. Domestic labour is therefore often unpaid, due to its inherent virtue – it has value in of itself. In contrast, men’s occupational labour requires ‘work’, and is rewarded accordingly. This traditionally gendered division acts as distinction between the symbolic (work in the private sphere) and the material (work in the public sphere). Yet this boundary is blurred.

Hilary Graham describes caring as ‘a labour of love’: “caring involves the transaction, too, of goods and services. The caring relationships women enter into – with husbands, children, parents, clients – are built on material as well as symbolic bonds” (1983: 16). Caring is a physical act and its material value must be recognised materially, through payment. As UBI would be paid to every citizen regardless of the location of their labour, it would recognise the worth of responsibilities that exist outside the world of orthodox, masculine labour. These responsibilities are often hidden and are associated with love and virtue. UBI would thus challenge the separation of the symbolically valuable private sphere and the materially valuable public sphere. Domestic labour has material worth; it demands time and effort and should be recognised as such. A UBI works toward such a recognition.

So, the gendered division of labour devalues work that occurs outside the traditional workplace. The material nature of this devaluation is key: if domestic labour is materially unrewarded then the labourer must become dependent, whether on another individual or the state. Caregiving and domestic labour, responsibilities associated with the female side of the gendered division of labour, come to be associated with dependency. Now, I would contend that a UBI would challenge this gendered dependency, as a new sense of material autonomy would emerge from domestic labour. It would ensure that being a caregiver would not necessarily mean that someone is a care receiver; autonomy would be granted to those who participate in domestic labour and caregiving. The concept of autonomy is often featured in feminist critiques of UBI, as some consider the policy to be overly individualistic and atomising. Autonomy does not, however, necessarily infer individualism. The definition taken here aligns with Diana Meyers’ (1989: 53) ‘autonomy competency’: autonomous people can consult themselves about their needs and wants, can act upon these answers, and can correct themselves when they get the answers wrong. Accordingly, UBI would not institutionalise individualism, but instead have the converse effect. Interdependency would be institutionalised, as material wealth would not be attributed to labour market participation but become an unrestricted right of citizenship. UBI separates care receiving from caregiving, meaning that whilst interdependency is socially recognised, the female experience is not reduced to the state of dependency produced by the gendered division of labour. The way we symbolically and materially attribute value to forms of labour has impacts upon the status of those performing these roles in wider society. We must ensure that economic capital is no longer monopolised by those participating in the public sphere of labour force participation, through a redistribution of value.

UBI vs welfare benefits

Feminist critiques of UBI are often centred on its incompatibility with state welfare, which, they suggest, must take precedence. Welfare benefits take the form of ‘merit goods’, essential services that conform to “publicly agreed-upon needs” (Bergmann, 2008: 4). These services include healthcare, schooling, childcare and decent housing. I would like to respond to this argument on a couple of levels. First, scholars such as Barbara Bergmann suggest that UBI is incompatible with these essential services. In reality, however, this opposition does not need to exist. A strong UBI would be intersectional and nuanced, recognising the different needs of different members of society, many of whom require state-provided public services. There is no incompatibility between welfare and cash benefits. The dividing line, suggests Simon Duffy (2018), is not between service and cash but marginal and universal. Years of austerity have caused marginal services (i.e. social care and means-tested benefits) to be considered cuttable, as they are only received by certain members of society. If the current state of public services was more effective and universal there would be merit in the argument that a UBI should be opposed in favour of protecting these services. However, the current political climate means that the distinction between the marginal and the universal facilitates social exclusion through the neglection of many public services.

If we were all considered dependent on the state, it would be harder to marginalise these services as they would all, to an extent, be considered universal.

Critiques focus on the feasibility of UBI, but all too often return to the moralistic arguments that support the aforementioned systems of marginalisation. Bergmann, for example, argues that welfare benefits are preferable, as cash payments could be spent by the recipient on “things of lower public priority or that are wasteful, such as gambling or larger cars” (2008: 4). There are clear and valid questions of feasibility surrounding UBI, but when critics convey such moral and ethical concerns their credibility immediately diminishes. This statement is problematic on a number of levels, but most significantly it emphasises the common understanding of welfare recipients as being ultra-dependent. Not only, suggest these arguments, should they lack material autonomy in the form of support they receive, but they should also be restricted of the autonomy competency to make their own ethical and moral decisions. Whether expressed under the guise of support for the welfare state or conservative politics, critics of UBI clearly feel discomfort at the centrality of agency to the policy proposal, particularly when the beneficiaries are those members of society for whom autonomy is frequently negated.

But autonomy is the true strength of UBI. Members of society should not have their needs assumed, but should be allowed to exercise control in identifying and responding to these needs. The designation of ‘merit goods’ is an ascription of value, a reflection of power. The power here is maintained by the (often patriarchal) state, without communication with prospective recipients. UBI, in contrast, allows value to be ascribed by the social actor. Value is decided by the agent, who is dependent on the state only to the extent that we are all, as humans, interdependent. They are autonomous in the decisions they make regarding value, and thus power is redistributed away from the patriarchal spheres of state-sanctioned welfare and labour market participation. This would have a positive impact upon those social groups, including women and the disabled, who have been rendered materially and symbolically ‘dependent’ by the current system of power, wealth and value.


Bergmann B (2004) A Swedish-Style Welfare State or Basic Income: Which should have priority? Politics and Society. 32:1, pp.107-118

Bergmann B (2008) Basic Income Grants or the Welfare State: Which better promotes gender equality? Basic Income Studies, 3:3, pp.1-7

Duffy S (2018) Basic Income or Basic Services. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform. 

Graham H (1983) Caring: A Labour of Love in Finch J and Groves D (eds) A Labour of Love: Women, work and caring. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp.13-30

Himmelweit S (1999) Caring Labor. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 56:1, pp.27-38

Meyers D (1989) Self, Society, and Personal Choice. New York: Columbia University Press

Van Parijs P (2004) Basic Income: A simple and powerful idea for the twenty-first century. Politics and Society, 32:1, pp.7-39

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Universal Basic Income: Unpaid Labour and Gender Relations © Allie Heny 2021.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 24.11.21

Basic Income, social justice, tax and benefits, Women-Centred, England, Article

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