When life returns to normal, will our domestic workers finally get their due?

This pandemic has taught us the value of a work force that cities have largely taken for granted. As the lockdown is lifted in a few zones, it is time to introspect and ensure just and humane employment for domestic workers.

COVID is not a worry for Rajamma, a domestic worker living in the quarters given by her employer residing in a high-income neighbourhood of Bengaluru. Wearing a mask, she steps out every evening to buy essentials for the family that has employed her for 15 years now. Her daily shopping is mostly for vegetables and fruits while groceries are bought online and home delivered.

Rajamma and her husband take care of the entire household work, which includes sweeping, mopping, folding clothes, drying and arranging washed dishes, cooking two meals and generally ensuring that her employer’s home is running smooth. Her husband does gardening, takes care of repair and maintenance, and runs errands.

Their modest ‘servant quarters’ is located on the terrace of a 4 floor mansion and has a bedroom, kitchen and a bathroom. Rajamma’s day starts at 6 am but she manages some rest in the afternoon. Sundays are holidays, allowing her to catch up on her own household chores and occasionally catch a film on TV. A few years ago, her employer paid all the medical costs when she was sick. Her children’s education too was ensured by her employer and they are now well-settled in well paying jobs. She is happy her children and grandchildren don’t have to take up domestic work for a living.

But Rajamma’s is a one in a million story. 

The more common story is that of women like Ashima, living a few kilometres from this affluent neighbourhood  in a rented, single room, asbestos-roof dwelling. Ashima came to the city five years back and works in five homes, sweeping, mopping, washing dishes and cooking. Her days started at 5 am and ended at 11 pm, until the lockdown was imposed. Her husband, a construction worker, is now without work or pay with all construction work having come to a halt.

Ashima has completely run out of money from the last salary she was paid, in February. She has little left of the groceries she received a few weeks ago, thanks to a local NGO engaged in relief work. Her days now go in waiting in lines for an hour for the packaged meal distributed by the government. Her employers staying in apartment complexes have asked her not to come and are yet to pay her for the days she worked in March. A few other households have been harassing her to get back to work even though she has no means of transport.

The stories of most domestic workers in Bangalore today are similar to that of Ashima’s. A city proud of its skyscrapers, upmarket housing and business complexes where its upwardly mobile men and women work, meet, dine, and socialise. All of these were built by the very migrants who are now stranded in the city, the women mostly working as domestic help in addition to lending a hand at construction sites. 

With the lockdown in place, households dependent on domestic workers have started to realise the amount of effort it takes to do what was previously taken for granted. Yet, what is striking is the fact that a certain section of these households remain oblivious to the facts of the lockdown and either expect their domestic help to get to work when there is no public transport or are not willing to pay them (even part payment) for the lockdown period. 

Some want to fire their domestic help out of fear they will bring home the virus. Many others are demanding that domestic workers download the Arogya Setu app and show it at the entrance of the apartment complex/gated community before entering.

Missing safety nets

The consequences of such actions on the lives of domestic workers is something urban society does not want to engage with, barring a few exceptions. It surely is not difficult to realise that these workers do not have the pockets to even make it through a month without any income.

For them, it is a question of access to basic essentials, food, nutrition and health. Combine this with the insufficient relief from the government, and the lack of access to affordable healthcare, and we have a section of society particularly vulnerable to harassment, exploitation and abuse. Women become particularly vulnerable as they now have to deal with increasing incidents of domestic violence besides managing household work . 

India has over 40 central labour legislations for workers in the organised sector, but these fail to help those in the unorganised sector

Most domestic workers are hired on word of mouth. But with the increasing number of working women  in urban areas, and a corresponding increase in affluence, the rise in demand for domestic workers has burgeoned leading to app and web-based broker/placement agencies that cater to their need for cooking, cleaning, elder care, child care and a variety of other home services.

Domestic workers have no registered contract, no rights, are overworked and are hardly ever paid as per the minimum wages act.  Healthcare expenses often eat into a large chunk of their small savings, if any, often leaving them in debt.

The regions they come from are often those with poor local economies and  poor local governance. All this leaves them in a limbo – they cannot go back, nor can they live a dignified life in the city. 

The International Labour Organisation describes domestic workers as those who “comprise a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment and are among the most vulnerable groups of workers. They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the scope of labour legislation.” According to the National Domestic Workers Movement, the number of domestic workers in India range from 4.2 million to unofficial estimates of over 50 million, with women making up a significant majority. 

Over the last few decades, significant mobilising and organising of domestic workers to stand up for their rights has led to them being included in the Unorganised Worker’s Social Security Act (2008) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act  (2013). A few state governments have extended the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) and the minimum wages act to cover domestic workers. 

Although India has over 40 central labour legislations for workers in the organised sector, these fail to help those in the unorganised sector, who comprise a large percentage of the workforce. The definitions in the laws, the nature of the work they are employed for and their workplace mostly excludes their coverage by these laws. 

However, the Domestic Workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Act, 2008 that was introduced to regulate payment and working conditions and check exploitation and trafficking of women household workers provides them some respite. It contains provisions for registration, age criteria, hours of work, annual leave with wages, minimum wage, safety and penalty provisions, eligibility to receive pension, maternity benefits and paid weekly off. District boards for settlement of disputes are also to be set up under this Act.

Domestic workers have no registered contract, no rights, are overworked and are hardly ever paid as per the minimum wages act.  Healthcare expenses often eat into a large chunk of their small savings, if any, often leaving them in debt.

A time to introspect

How helpful this Act has actually been to domestic workers is open to debate. But this pandemic has surely taught us the value of this work force whom we have taken for granted all these years. With the lockdown lifting partially and completely in a few city zones, it is time now to relook at the laws, make the required amendments and ensure a just and humane employment for domestic workers, just as we enjoy.

In addition, it is time for urban employers to introspect on the following:

  • Are we paying our domestic workers as per the law?
  • Are we giving them a weekly day off which they are entitled to?
  • Can we try and assure, to whatever extent we can, some medical cost reimbursement or provident fund contribution?
  • Can we ensure their families will not slip into absolute poverty during this pandemic?
  • Can we help them through this challenging time?

The answers to these questions will help determine whether our domestic workers will ever have a chance to be socially upwardly mobile.

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