Domestic workers face brunt during COVID-19 lockdown

Domestic workers face the brunt during COVID-19 lockdown

Representative image.

A domestic worker has been working in a South Delhi household for the past 15 years but her employer has bothered neither attended her telephone call nor called her back to check about her well-being since the COVID-19 lockdown that started on March 25.

Like her, many domestic workers across the country are just abandoned by their employers in the hour of crisis, asking them not to come to their houses for work, denied full payment for March and not even bothering to pay them in April.

Several domestic workers have woke up to no work and uncertainty on March 25 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown to fight the pandemic. Adding to this is a section of abusive employers and mental trauma due to the inability to reach out to their families far away.

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Official statistics place the number of domestic workers employed in India at 47.5 lakh, including 30 lakh women, but this is considered as severe underestimation and the true number to be more between two crore to eight crore workers, according to International Labour Organisation website.

A number of domestic workers stay in south Delhi's Madanpur Khader and work in south Delhi's Greater Kailash, Safdarjung Enclave, Malavya Nagar and Kalkaji area. Many of them attempted to walk to their workplaces but some of them were even not allowed to enter.

"Employers are not even picking up phones. Many of the domestic workers have not even got a salary. They are being told to stay home and some are even told not to come for next six months," says Hirawati of Delhi-based Nari Ekta Shakti Sanghathan.

One of the biggest fears is that the pressure they will face from their landlords to pay the pending rents once the lockdown is lifted. "It is not easy to pay the pending rent soon after the lifting of lockdown. At present, there may be some relaxation in paying rent. Many may not get work. The pressure is going to build up. That is one worry," Hirawati says.

Meva Bharti of Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union too echoes her saying 80% of the domestic workers in Jaipur have lost at least 10 days salary in March while almost all employers telling them that they will not give them a salary for April as they have not worked.

"Some are even saying they don't need someone for cooking from now on. Many are just losing their source of income," Bharti says. The situation for the migrant domestic workers is more critical as they were not prepared for the sudden lockdown and not in a position to leave for their native places.

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Coupled with income loss, domestic workers, like many other migrant workers, now face the prospect of being thrown out of their rented accommodations, undergo mental trauma as they living in sheds with no water and proper sanitation facilities.

The announcements by the central and state governments asking employers not to deny wages and landlords not to ask for rent appeared to have not cut much ice with Geeta Menon, co-founder of Bengaluru-based Stree Jagruti Samiti, saying the COVID-19 situation has made it much worse for migrant workers.

"Many working in apartments have got their wages for March because of their bargaining power. But several fear that they won't get their April wages. There is a sense of insecurity among them. In metros, the issue may not be severe but in districts, it is the other way. Any way the wages are too low there. We should also look at the situation of male cooks from West Bengal, Odisha, Assam and elsewhere who are working in food stalls and houses outside their states," Menon told a webinar organised by Delhi-based 'Jagori'.

Menon says pressure should build-up, as employers think domestic workers are carriers of the disease and a potential threat.

Jagori's Jayashree Velankar too points out to the potential job loss and the impact it can have on domestic workers' income and well being. Velankar and WIEGO's Shalini Sinha also highlight the vulnerability of older domestic workers, whom employers may suspect of being unhealthy.

NCW Member Secretary Meeta Lochan says the vulnerabilities of the domestic workers are same as that of any other lower-income groups and one needs to look at how the domestic worker could be "upskilled" like training them to use a dish-washer, washing machine or oven besides abilities to read and write. "The pandemic might be the right time to rejig the strategy," she says.

Aya Matsuura, a Gender Specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), says domestic workers often do not have income support though they have the right to a safe environment to work. She says it is imperative for the employer to provide protective gears as well as information to workers and focus should be to support a vulnerable group of workers, including domestic workers.

If one goes by Nalini Nayak, General Secretary of Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), all is not bad in Kerala where the state government has taken pro-active measures, especially by preparing the public for the lockdown in advance. "Kerala and West Bengal governments have reached out to workers very well while the situation in Bihar is problematic. In Delhi, the middlemen are collecting the rents and many domestic workers are threatened," she said.

Nayak says that those working on the issues of domestic workers should also try to tap the mainstream trade unions and women's wings of political parties and involve them in the fight.

The paucity of authentic data that indicates that this section of workers, especially women workers, is not given due importance by the labour departments and big central Trade unions alike.

"The trade unions were not earlier open to the issue. Now, some of them have realised that they should," she says.