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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 25, New Delhi, June 5, 2021

Plight of Domestic Workers During Covid-19 Pandemic | Sarkar & Agrawal

Friday 4 June 2021

by Kingshuk Sarkar* & Ayushi Agrawal**

Suhana (name changed) is in her early thirties. She is a widow and, has three children. She is living in a semi kaccha house in the sub-urban area of Delhi. She works as a domestic worker in nearby societies and earning a reasonable livelihood. Living and managing everything all alone was not easy for her but thanks to her work which gives sufficient income to manage everything. But this current pandemic and subsequent lockdown has changed everything upside down. She has left with no work. All the households where she was working asked her to go on leave and that too without pay. She is not in a position to pay rent, loan, school fees, and other expenses. Likewise, Arti (name changed) working full time in one house and earning 10,000 a month has become jobless after this pandemic. 

Suhana or Arti, are not the only sufferers. There are numerous domestic workers all over India, who lost livelihood because of ongoing pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Last year’s lockdown was harsh. But the ongoing second wave and sporadic lockdowns that were imposed again revealed the sharp fault line and we are again witnessing similar plight of domestic workers. At the best of times, domestic workers lead a very precarious life as far as their livelihood is concerned. They live on the fringe eking out a living. Things like covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown have devastating impacts on the life and livelihoods of domestic workers who are part of the informal workers’ diaspora in India.

Characteristics of domestic workers

Following Convention No. 189 of ILO “domestic work” is defined ‘as the work performed in or for a household or households and “domestic worker” means any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship. (https://www.wiego.org/blog/coping-covid-19-sewas-domestic-workers-pandemic-and-beyond).

In India, domestic work is informal work which is characterized by absence of written contract, social security, conventional method of wage determination, and presence of multiple household employers, very little government intervention and lack of decent work environment. Domestic work itself is a distress livelihood option. It’s a fall back option when no other option is available.

Unlike other works, domestic works are not restricted to any particular set of tasks within a household. Therefore, this occupation is defined by not the type of task but the place of work, which is the household.

The ‘private, familial domain’ also implies that the state regulation is absent, thereby the standardization of wages and effective unionization are also limited. The wide variations in nature and types of tasks not only pose challenges in understanding the status of workers, they also make the concepts of decent work difficult to be applied in this sector particularly in its operational sense making it difficult to identify domestic work as “just like any other work” or “hybrid work” with a special form of the employment relationship within the private household. Therefore, the introduction of “decent work” standards for such work seems complex in reality.

Pragmatic intimacy or the individual negotiation within the private, personalised domain of the ‘madam/sir—maid relationship’ embodies not just the vulnerability of the domestic worker but also certain advantages based on ‘mutual dependence and reciprocity’. This is especially so in the context of little or no social security and alternative employment options for the worker.

The overall degraded position of the domestic worker rides on the logic that she is contracting in the so-called ‘private’ realm of social relations where the principles of ‘civic’ contract are fleeting’. (Sen Samita & Sengupta Nilanjana, (2016), Domestic Days: Women, Work, and Politics in Contemporary Kolkata Samita Sen and Nilanjana Sengupta, Oxford Scholarship Online, p 52). (https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199461165.001.0001/acprof-9780199461165).

Lack of Data on domestic workers 

Official statistics place the numbers employed in India as 4.75 million, (of which 3 million are women) but this is considered as severe underestimation and the true number to be more between 20 million to 80 million workers. (https://www.ilo.org/newdelhi/areasofwork/WCMS_141187/lang--en/index.htm). They remain part of an informal and unregulated sector, obscured in private homes, not recognised as workers but rather as ’informal help’.

According to the National Sample Survey (NSSO, 61st round 2004−05), the approximate figure of domestic workers in India was of 4.2 million. Before that, according to the 2001 census, it was around 6.7 million. The most recent government press release from January 2019 estimated (based upon NSSO 68th round 2011−12) the total number of domestic servants at 3.9 million.
(https://www.wiego.org/blog/coping-covid-19-sewas-domestic-workers-pandemic-and-beyond)
These numbers lack credibility. They conceal more than they actually reveal. These are survey data based on tiny sample. There are about 30 million middle-class households in India. Almost, all the middle-class households hire services of one domestic worker on an average. That vouch for at least 30 million domestic workers plus few million domestic workers at least engaged in rich and super rich families. Figures can’t be as low as 4 million.
(https://thewire.in/labour/domestic-servants-informal-workforce)

Lack of minimum wage/social security for domestic workers 

In India, there exists no welfare legislation for domestic workers. Few States have included domestic work in the scheduled of employment and fixed minimum wages. However, implementation still remains an issue as conduct of inspection at domestic space remains ambiguous and household being the employer is yet to be legally defined. A holistic legislation, encompassing different aspects of domestic labour, needs to be enacted.

Domestic works, in many cases, are found to be regulated heavily by the non-state or non-formal norms that vary substantially spatially and from one culture to the other. While these informal institutional factors as indicated by norms and practices play important role in regulating the domestic work-space, they also play role in marginalising domestic workers.

The workspace of domestic work is the household, which is explained in liberal theory as a space that should be free from state intervention making it difficult to include under the ambit of regulation. Since household unpaid tasks are mainly undertaken by women the domestic workers’ tasks are often considered as the ‘labour of love’ and not the work that warrants regulation and full remuneration. Pragmatic intimacy forms the structure of interaction between household and domestic worker.

The Central Government is already implementing Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, to provide social security relating to life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection to the unorganised workers including domestic workers. Various Ministries/Departments of the Central Government are implementing such social security schemes like National Old Age Pension Scheme (Ministry of Rural Development); National Family Benefit Scheme (Ministry of Rural Development); Janani Suraksha Yojana (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare), Ayushman Bharat (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare). In addition to the above welfare schemes, the Central Government has recently converged the social security schemes of Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana (AABY) with Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY) to provide life and disability coverage to the unorganised workers for the age group of 18 to 50 years depending upon their eligibility. Converged PMJJBY gives coverage of Rs2 lakhs on death at premium of Rs.330/- per annum for an age span from 18 to 50 years. Converged PMSBY gives coverage of Rs.2 lakhs on accidental death and disability at premium of Rs.12 per annum. These converged schemes of PMJJBY/PMSBY are being implemented by Ministry of Labour & Employment through Life Insurance Corporation of India. The annual premium is shared on 50:50 formulae by the Central Government and the State Governments.

Domestic workers have also been included as a specific category of workers (with home as the workplace) in the Sexual Harassment of women at workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (2013). In several States, trade unions are organizing domestic workers and unions have been registered exclusively for domestic workers. Domestic Workers Sector Skills Council has been established under Ministry of Skills Development to enable professionalization of domestic workers and enable their career progression.

Draft National Policy

The Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India, has acknowledged the importance of domestic work and the need to improve welfare and regulatory measures for promoting decent work for domestic workers. Also, for the very first time, domestic workers have been recognized as workers in the Unorganized Sector Social Security Act, 2008. The Ministry of Labour & Employment is considering to formulate a National Policy on Domestic Workers which is in the draft stage. The salient features of the proposed draft National Policy on Domestic Workers are as below:

(i) Inclusion of Domestic Workers in the existing legislations like minimum wages act, maternity benefit act etc.
(ii) Domestic workers will have the right to register as unorganized workers. Such registration will facilitate their access to rights & benefits.
(iii) Right to form their own associations/unions
(iv) Right to minimum wages, access to social security
(v) Right to enhance their skills
(vi) Protection of Domestic Workers from abuse and exploitation
(vii)Domestic Workers to have access to courts, tribunals, labour administration for grievance redressal
(viii) Establishment of a mechanism for regulation of private placement agencies.
(ix) Establishment of a grievance redressal system for domestic workers.
(https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1558848)

Impact of lockdown

During lockdown in the first phase majority of employers instructed their domestic workers to stay home and not to report at work. They paid the salaries through bank transfer and in some cases domestic workers came in person to collect salaries from the doorstep. These domestic employers did pay salaries to their domestic workers during initial period of 1-2 months of the lockdown last year notwithstanding the fact that domestic workers could not report at work.

When unlock process started in June, domestic workers started returning to work. But quite a few of them were not allowed to resume work as employers were apprehensive. Some of these employers kept on paying salary but the rest decided to discontinue domestic workers.

Some domestic workers who earlier commuted daily from villages to cities for work, started living in cities in low rent houses (group of workers living together and sharing the cost). Cost of commuting was too high in absence of suburban trains. Their employers also supported these workers by providing them with extra money and other help. Few employers gave additional money to their domestic workers to take care of increased travel cost and few gave money such that domestic workers can buy cycles.

Another common behaviour observed among the majority of employers is that they started employing singular domestic workers in cases where earlier they used to employ multiple domestic workers to do different types domestic work. Employers tried to minimize entry of outside persons in their homes and in the process shifted from multiple to single domestic workers. As a result, a substantial number of domestic workers lost their jobs. Also, some employers told that they curtailed working days from usual six to three days or asked domestic workers to work in alternative days.

Domestic employers too could better realize the precarious nature of domestic workers in the context of covid 19 pandemic. Majority of these workers tried to stood by their workers even in cases where households suffer loss in income because of pandemic. However, there were few cases where employers got rid of domestic workers during the initial stages of lockdown itself.

By the time, second wave hit our country and local lockdowns became the norm of the day, domestic workers again started losing jobs. Apartments households in gated communities in cities put restrictions on entry of domestic workers. Even in cases where households were willing to let workers in, they were not allowed to do so. Also, a significant number of domestic workers lost livelihoods as again public transport were off roads and they could not commute.

Employers too did not support their domestic workers this time around. No work no pay was the predominant norm this time. Also, learning from the experiences of previous lock downs, employers made alternative arrangements. A section of domestic workers already lost livelihoods during lockdowns and subsequent time last year itself. Those who could preserve their jobs last year, suffered this around. Lockdowns and fear of infection in successive years hit the domestic workers hard who were already in a precarious condition reeling from last year’s crisis.
(https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/covid-19-lockdown-india-needs-laws-to-protect-domestic-workers/)

The Way Forward

It is obvious that this pandemic has exposed the precarity of domestic workers in India. Domestic workers have absolutely no legal protection. They don’t have any social security coverage. Majority of domestic workers are un-unionized and don’t have a collective voice to represent their issues. Almost all the domestic workers are women and mostly belong to marginalized sections of the society. Government tried to formulate a national policy for domestic workers but that could not get finalized till date. Domestic workers lack basic working rights. Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns caused enormous damage to already precarious livelihood of domestic workers.

In recent times, trade unions of domestic workers have begun to be successfully registered in places like Kolkata and Delhi—NCR. Nonetheless, it is still too early to tell whether the current forms of public action and unionisation of domestic workers will trigger a transformation in the neo-liberal legal paradigm of minimal state intervention and intensified privatisation of labour regulation. It is a fact that domestic workers have been included in the welfare and social security schemes run by the state labour departments in some of the states, but such facilities are too little and don’t actually an alternative to workers’ rights generally enshrined in protective labour legislations.

There has been a lot of discussion about introducing a stronger rights-based regime for domestic workers in India, nothing concrete has come of it. At present, there are only two policies concerning domestic workers, the Unorganised Workers Act 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013. But both of these pieces of legislation are insufficient.

While the former fails to guarantee basic rights to domestic workers and is largely ineffective in its enforcement, the latter fails to address the peculiarities of the domestic work profession, and is thus inadequate in trying to address the grievances of domestic workers. As a result, domestic workers continue to be deprived of their rights.

Nevertheless, fleeting results and the pervasive exploitation of these workers clearly show that work/industry-specific laws can deliver only if these laws change the work process. As long as the policy approach is restricted to a piecemeal social welfare scheme revolving around welfare boards which have little power of regulation and enforcement, and as long as the state machinery continues to undermine the collective power of labour, domestic workers can hardly expect any relief from low wages and harsh working conditions.

Views expressed are that of the author and not necessarily that of the organization he belongs to.

(Authors: *Dr. Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and also works as a labour administrator with the Government of West Bengal. He earlier served as a faculty of the V V Giri National Labour Institute, Noida and NIRD, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at kingshuk71[at]hotmail.com
**Ayushi Agarwal is a research scholar @Indira Gandhi National Open University and working on Women’s unpaid work. She can be contacted at ayushi.agrawal03[at]gmail.com )

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