Geeta lives in a jhuggi-jhopri cluster next to the middle-class residential complexes in Delhi’s Dwarka. She runs a family of seven - an old mother, widowed sister and four children. After losing her contractual job as a housekeeper in an educational institution last year, she took up domestic work in at least three houses. She is on the lookout for more houses to work in to avoid starvation at home. But the Covid-19 lockdown, in its second prolonged extension, has made survival precarious for Geeta and thousands of others like her. One employer warned her not to come to work without any assurance that she’d be paid for the days of absence. Another employer kept insisting that she come to work with safety gloves and a mask in spite of the lockdown till strict enforcement of rules by the police made it impossible for her to travel. Another employer asked her not to come again resulting in loss of work and income. All of her experiences during lockdown indicate aggravated forms of injustices and disregard towards migrant domestic workers like her in the public realm. A systemic denial to recognise domestic workers as ‘workers’ has always left them at the mercy of the employer. This institutional ignorance is also influenced by structural patterns and prejudices and have been discussed and debated in policy discourse. Life-threatening challenges that domestic workers face during this lockdown emerge out of the multiple vulnerabilities that sustained in this sector so far. In order to understand the current inaction for the welfare of domestic workers, one needs to relook at these deep-rooted injustices existing for decades.
A majority of domestic workers are the principal income-earners of their families. As they stay in unauthorised colonies/slums in cities, usually without any ration cards and identity proof, they cannot avail of institutionalised benefits from the state. Their recourse to food is confined to free rations distributed by NGOs and philanthropists. For them, ‘social distancing’ is classist terminology as their houses are very small spaces with no ventilation and independent toilets. According to Geeta, most of them spend nights, sometimes as late as 2am, sitting outside their houses to escape from the heat and suffocation in Delhi. Moreover, there are large queues for free ration on the streets, whenever there is distribution.
Covid-19 as a health crisis raises various questions not only related to individualised physical survival but also about the structural patterns that relied on weakening of welfare state. In India, 93% of the working population is in the informal sector, characterised by low wages, long working hours, no social security protection, no emergency assistance schemes or welfare benefits. It is these workers who have borne the brunt of the lockdown the most. The economy that is driven by their contributions has orphaned them on the highways. Public institutions, including welfare funds, welfare boards or public health care schemes, haven’t provided any Covid-19 welfare plans for migrant informal workers. However, the formal/organised workers have been able to access and stock up on rations and essential amenities in their homes. This reflects the crisis of growth-oriented capitalism that creates a wide gulf between the affluent and the poor. Migrant domestic workers are having to face aggravated challenges of lockdown, apart from the deeply embedded existing continuum of challenges of the domestic work sector.
Pernicious work: Multiple challenges
Reproductive work, the work that refers to household work, is increasingly outsourced as paid domestic work. In spite of increasing number of women entering the formal labour market, they find themselves bearing the double burden of being the sole producers at home. The nature and conditions of domestic work are structured to keep the workers obedient to the employer and any deviation is treated as aggression or disobedience.
Raka Ray, in her empirical study of domestic Workers in Calcutta, argues that “workers are reduced to a state of “perpetual infantilism” to create hopelessness and a corresponding lack of resistance”. There is always a selflessness and invisibility of personhood that the employer demands under his/her power and authority.
‘Gendered Familialism’: Undervaluation of work
Paid domestic work as work inside the home or within a family is considered to be an extension of housework. This work, within the private sphere, has been noted as a reason for non-interventionism by the state. As Palriwala and Neetha argue, “gendered familialism’ has strategically played a role in reiterating care work as female work in public discourse and policy. This gendered production of the public and private spheres has led to the undervaluing of domestic work. The distress of these workers has a clear link with the political and legal non-recognition of domestic work. In the Indian context, the class and castes with socio-cultural, economic and political capital have contributed to legislative lethargy. Undervaluation of domestic work is posited on a lack of understanding of the difference between their work and other occupations. Society tends to forget the investment of ‘affective labour” (amount of care and caution), that cannot be quantified and remunerated using measures of productivity. Arianne Shahvisi has called this non-recognition ‘hermeneutical injustice’ towards domestic workers.
Footloose Labour: Added Vulnerabilities
Migrant domestic workers are ‘footloose labourers’ to use Jan Breman’s term, as they circulate between villages and urban cities for sustenance as casual labourers. Predominantly, domestic workers in urban spaces belong to dalit/tribal identities and they enter this work as part of their livelihood strategy. Their alienation at the workplace, based on caste, gender, ethnicity, language and other behavioural practices is quite common inside homes. Domestic workers continue to complain about the trivialisation of their adjustment anxieties at the workplace despite a complete change of reproduction space and pace.
The narrative of domestic work as ‘ordinary work’ is also influenced by cultural hierarchy and heteropatriarchy, rooted in the Indian settings. The reasons for women’s migration patterns are interpreted differently over the last decades as coercion, marriage, volunteered migration in search of livelihood and city exposure. Apart from these, educational backwardness, extension of housework, increasing demand in the cities, change in the family structures and stable accommodation and food in the case of live-in workers, are also reasons for migration for domestic work. Exploitation and manipulation of migrant domestic workers by placement agencies is a decades-old human rights issue. These agencies play a notorious role in denying them original wages and keeping them in ignorance about the conditions of work.
‘Indignity’ At Work: Constant ‘Othering’
Domestic work is positioned at the bottom of the occupational structure with low social status and recognition. It has always been treated as ‘dirty work’ left to be done by women from marginalised sections. Domestic workers have suffered this subordination though the political economy has restructured the gendered division in the labour market. It is an irony that their skill and experiences are not economically valued or rewarded even in modern economic society. The employers believe that workers are ‘obligated’ to be supervised. The representation of domestic workers as infantile, dependent, vulnerable, unskilled and uncivilised is to suit to the employers’ privilege of controlling them through acts of patronage and benevolence. Indignity ranges from treatment of the workers, subservience demanded in their conduct, non-consideration of their skills at real work, constant need to prove their behaviour as loyal, being the first to be blamed for any disruption of regular routine life of the employer and allowed no agency in determining the quality and quantity of food and essential needs.
Pandemic, Lockdown and the Daily Lives of Domestic Workers
As the employers have withheld work and salaries during the lockdown, stay in cities has become a survival challenge for migrant domestic workers. Lockdown has raised existential questions for this ‘hand to mouth’ working population and immediate drive was to reach to their native places. This return movement blindfolded social distancing. We witnessed mass assembling of migrant labourers on roads waiting for buses, walking thousands of kilometres and infants and pregnant women crying for food and water. State responses were also questioned as disinfectant was directly sprayed over them or when they were lathi-charged for protesting for food and essentials. The state was more anxious over their being vectors of infection rather than ensuring ration and essentials with decent accommodation.
Regular Financial Commitments and Increasing Burdens
Migrant domestic workers bear the expenses of city life with their meagre incomes. Lack of social security protection and low wages frame them in ‘debt’ traps in informal arrangements. Monica, a domestic worker, who has taken money on interest from a local money lender, is increasingly getting worried over the accumulated interest during these months. Domestic workers cannot avail loan facilities from banks for any emergency in their lives. These financial commitments are going to add to their precarity at work to succumb to all unfair demands by the employer. Usha, a domestic worker, also explains how she has been asked to join work by the employer and she travels hiding from the police. She says she is ready to work to avoid accumulated financial burden as she is single mother of two school-going children.
Lack of Savings and Dependence on Donations
Domestic workers have no savings to utilise during crisis or no-work period. Expecting them to rely on their savings while sitting at home shows no sense of their economic conditions. In the development discourse, Sylvia Chant has argued that “women compose 60-70% of the world’s poor, with female-headed households representing ‘the poorest of the poor.” It is in this context, that the poverty of women workers is because of unequal gender relations that restrict their bargaining agency and entitlements equal to men. This has been referred to as ‘feminisation of poverty’ by Cecile Jackson, which has a specific resonance with women domestic workers’ sector considering that the economic valuation of their labour is determined by the employer or employers’ agglomerations according to their whims. The lack of state supported assistance schemes specifically for women domestic workers leaves them structurally and procedurally vulnerable to conditions of poverty. Donations are individual initiatives most of the time and there is an increasing discontent against failure of state initiatives to provide them ration and essential food items. Ration shop owners are also complaining about lack of supply of resources and increasing queues in front of shops. Even in front of government schools, women camp up for hours to get rations and food items. Public health initiatives have no consideration for these workers and this reflects their perception towards toiling women workers as second-class citizens.
Survival of the Fittest: Malnourished Women Domestic Workers
The percentage of malnourished women, especially those suffering from anaemia, from disadvantaged social and economic groups has seen a drastic increase over the years. The data shows that about 70 per cent of non-pregnant and 75 per cent of pregnant women aged 15-49 years in India were anaemic and it has adverse effects beyond maternal mortality to causing intra-uterine growth retardation, child nutrition and prevalence of chronic diseases. Domestic workers, engaged in reproductive work both at employers’ house and their own houses, account for highest risk of malnutrition. In Indian settings, women get their meals after the rest of the family has finished eating: men first, children next and women are left with what remains. Even in households where women are breadwinners, she gets the last seat. The Rajasthan nutrition project launched in 2015 found that women with lesser say in running their household are more vulnerable to malnutrition. Domestic work, which entails both physical and emotional labour, has been ignored as productive work and their ‘body work’ purposefully invisibilised to reserve cheap labour. It is in this context, women domestic workers, prone to malnutrition and chronic diseases, are expected to fight against the pandemic.
Domestic Violence of Women Workers
There is widespread reporting of increase in domestic violence during lockdown, which has been referred to as the ‘shadow pandemic’ by the United Nations. The National Commission of Women (NCW) reports that from March 24 till April 1, 2020, 257 complaints related to various offences against women were received. There are various kinds of power struggles and non-compatibility that results in violence on women. In the case of domestic workers in the lower economic strata, husbands or partners expect their wives to give full earnings to them. The lockdown has affected money flows and this has increased different forms of violence on them. This is apart from regular cases of abuse over women, which can be verbal, financial, psychological or sexual. There is a complaint from working women on lockdown about how their husbands expect them to be available on call every time for their service and that has become a full-time job inside the home without any recognition. As women are primary care- givers at home, their availability full time at home leads to their taking reproductive work of everyone on their shoulders and the draining of their physical and emotional energies.
Non-regulated Sector and Orphaned Women Workers
Article 15 (3) of the Constitution gives power to the legislature to make special laws for women. As per the Ministry of Labour and Employment records, there are more than 30 lakh women working as domestic workers, making it a women-oriented sector which requires a protectionist framework. There is a long-standing demand from the domestic workers’ movement to ratify the International Convention No. 189 of 2011 and to specifically ensure their labour rights under a specific legislation. It is interesting to note that this sector has never received political empathy and all the eleven bills so far drafted to consolidate rights for domestic workers had been under the initiative of domestic workers’ collectives and organisations. The age-old argument against legislation is that many workers would become unemployed if it mandates a minimum wage. This argument itself shows the intention to protect the employer, the stronger party, rather than the worker. Another argument revolves around the failure of implementation and difficulties in enforcement. Any rights-based framework that is aimed at social change is difficult to cause an immediate positive transformation. Especially in domestic workers’ case, their rights are positioned against financial obligations over the employers, which would include policymakers of all organs of the state - legislature, executive and judiciary. It also requires a change in the feudal mindset to simplify bureaucratic procedures, facilitate litigation access and dissemination of awareness about workers’ rights.
National Committee for Domestic Workers, SEWA Union reports that majority of employers have kept the workers in distress without ensuing payment for the duration of lockdown. When domestic workers ask for wages for the duration of the lockdown, it is not charity from the employer, but the price of their labour and a share of its accumulated comforts in the employers’ lives. Judicial discourse around labour justice is not just to save workers from starvation but to ensure efficiency and productivity as a worker, above the subsistence level with dignity of living. The legitimate concerns of domestic workers cannot be overlooked to the benefit of mightier employers. That would derail the philosophy of labour justice, i.e., the empowerment of the weaker at work.
(Sophy K Joseph is a post- doctoral researcher at the CWDS and Assistant Professor at the NLUD. Views expressed are personal.)