While the Government and local administration have stepped forward to support and reach out to workers with relief packages, programmes and schemes to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. However much more needs to be done and many workers remain left out of the fold. Amongst the unprotected are domestic workers, most of whom are women. The domestic workers were the first set of workers who lost their livelihood when the pandemic touched India, many domestic workers were asked to stay back home even before the national lockdown was announced. After the lockdown, there are several reports and surveys which detail how their wages were withheld, and the workers were discriminated and stigmatised as spreaders of infection.  Despite that like all working in the service sector, domestic workers were at high risk of being infected. There are an estimated 50 million domestic workers whose livelihood is in lurch as their employability is in doldrums while the infection lasts. While there was no specific announcement by the Government, those domestic workers who had Jan Dhan account got Rs 500 per month. Many domestic workers left the metro cities and took the road home to their native places. In their home states, these workers remain mostly confined to home and are finding it difficult to get any suitable employment. Domestic workers are finding it difficult to get back to employment, as there is fear of infection amongst the employers, and they are facing both discrimination and stigma arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the unlock, there are several restrictions on the movement and return to work for domestic workers. In some cases, the resident welfare associations (RWA) have mandated that domestic workers work only in one household, with entry time restrictions to housing societies, while requiring the domestic workers to manage masks, hand sanitizers and other protective material from their own money.

Glimpses from Lives of Domestic Workers

(names have been changed to protect identity)
  • Kamla, a 40-year old domestic worker from New Ambedkar Nagar Basti, Bhopal requested early payment from her employers. They refused to pay her. Shanti’s husband who is a daily wager and works as a mason is also out of work. Shanti is worried about how they will make ends meet. The family doesn’t have a BPL card or any union registration. She has a gas cylinder which she replaces by buying in “black” in the market i.e. for extra cash contravening rules.
  • Mala is a domestic worker in Kolkatta who says that even on the day of Janta Curfew, she and others were called to work by employers, and were asked to maintain a safe distance.
  • Rita from Mayur Vihar in Delhi was asked to leave work by two of her employers, without being paid her dues.
  • Anita from Lucknow got calls from her employer during the lockdown to report to work or else she would have to repay the loan she had taken.
  • Sumati from Nadia district in West Bengal, migrated to Kolkata last year in search of work. Through a placement agency she got employment as a full-time domestic worker in the Salt Lake area. She was earning Rs 8000/- a month. During the lockdown Shyamali was let go and was denied full wages. She had to settle for Rs 5000/- and arrange for her own transport back home.
  • Amrita, a resident of Madhurawada, Vishakhapatnam, was a construction worker on contract and would also take up work as a domestic worker. She and her daily wager husband together were able to earn around Rs 12,000/- a month. They have two school-going daughters who are in the 10th However, due to lockdown and restrictions both lost their livelihood and had no other source of income in the city. They survived on NGO dry ration support however are worried about the monthly house rent, electricity bill, water tax bill and other regular maintenance expenditure in the city. With great difficulty they went back to their native village. There too they have no source of livelihood at present.

What do domestic workers need!

ActionAid Association, Women Wage Watch groups initiated across 12 states top track, monitor and document wage violation, labour law violation and harassment at workplace, organisations of domestic workers, civil society organisations, networks of organisations and solidarity circles from across the country have joined hands to raise awareness about the challenges faced by the domestic workers and to draw the attention of the Union and State Governments to their plight, so that schemes, policies and laws can be passed to advance and secure rights of domestic workers. These include:
  • The provision of immediate relief to domestic workers through cash transfers till the pandemic ends.
  • Easy registration of domestic workers as ‘workers’ under the Labour Department through already existing systems – police verification forms, resident welfare association letter, union memberships, letter from placement agencies, civil society organisations and other associations.
  • Enactment of a comprehensive legislation to secure rights of domestic workers.
  • The creation of a social security scheme for domestic workers by the Union and State Governments.
  • Immediate notification to all resident welfare associations and employers to ensure the safety and work security for domestic workers.
  • The issuing of an advisory to resident welfare associations (RWA), placement agencies and employers to ensure that:
    • all information about live-in domestic workers, and their health and working conditions to the Labour Department.
    • employee retention is manitained, such that domestic workers are taken back on work unconditionally. They must not be kept in the dark about their jobs, face delay in payments and adequate wage compensation should be given.
    • domestic workers are not discriminated against or looked at as “higher risk” individuals. Notices such as “Domestic workers not take the lift” and other such discriminatory practices should be banned.
    • that proper training on physical distancing is provided by the facility management or employers to the domestic workers. Decent waiting space must be provided for them.
    • that regular supply of fresh masks, gloves and hand sanitizers must be provided by the facility management or employer to every domestic worker just like in any other workplace.
    • guards and facility managers must be trained on treating the domestic workers with due respect.
    • Employers must pay their domestic workers fully wages for the period of the lockdowns and any ongoing and future period where domestic workers are not being prohibited from coming to their place of employment.

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