domestic worker

Domestic workers generally lead a life of low wages and struggle for survival in Indian cities. However what they have faced in recent times is an unprecedented crisis.  Periodic lockdowns have led to widespread loss of work and income. This extends often for a period much beyond the period of lockdown. This has led to increasing hunger and malnutrition. In addition it is becoming more difficult to retain even their very modest rented shelters as they are unable to pay rent.

Another factor troubling them is how they will pay back the debts which they are incurring these days to just keep their families surviving on subsistence levels.

In Jaipur ( Rajasthan) as many as about 90 per cent of  women domestic workers are migrants. The largest number are from W.Bengal, while others are from states like Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In many families the husband works as construction worker . This work too has been very badly affected, and hence income has been very badly affected in the case of both earners, in some months reduced to zero. With low savings to fall back upon, how to survive is a big question.

The Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union ( RKMU) is an important union working among domestic workers in Jaipur and to a lesser extent in some other parts of Rajasthan. During the worst crisis time it  tried to make available some free rations and economic help, but of course this was not adequate to check the drift towards increasing distress.

According to a survey conducted by RKMU none of the domestic workers covered in the survey lived in their own house even before the advent of the present crisis. As many as 96 per cent lived in rented houses while 4 per cent lived in servants’ quarters. While these houses are generally small and cramped, after the crisis came some had to shift to even smaller houses. In some cases owners asked them to vacate the house and in at least one case occupants were also beaten up to vacate the house.  With the advent of the crisis some of them   pleaded with the house owners to give them some exemption.  In 5% cases a two month exemption was given , in 15% cases a one month exemption was given but in all other cases, about 80%, no exemption was given.

In these conditions a real shelter crisis has emerged, in addition to the income, employment and food crisis, which is not adequately realized. According to the survey, pending rent dues range from Rs. 15000 to Rs. 35000. So the shelter crisis is not going away anytime soon. There are other debts to be paid as well. So this can be as the emergence of a longer-term crisis much beyond the lockdown period in which apart from parents the life of children and minors is also likely to become much more precarious and vulnerable.

This is the condition of domestic workers not just in Jaipur but in many other cities as well. According to a survey conducted by the International Domestic Workers Federation in Maharashtra last year, while 62% domestic workers lost jobs temporarily during lockdowns as many as an additional 24% domestic workers lost jobs completely.  Although they had to struggle very hard even in earlier days, due to their commitment to making some savings even in difficult times, most of them entered COVID times with some savings but will be exiting it, when the time comes, with debts and rent over-dues. So there is an urgent need today to be helpful  towards those who have served others for a long time to provide them the conditions in which they could progress . Whatever relief packages the government has in mind, it should not forget the urgent needs of domestic workers most of whom are women. It will be very useful to increase free food allocations as well as to make cash transfers. If a better deal can be worked out for them for improving their income and social security, then this will help them with increased income to come out of this crisis and its debts.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author, has been close to several social movements in India.


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