Kolkata’s domestic workers were worst hit by Covid lockdowns

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the working class suffered the most. And, among the working class, the worst off were those who are not even recognized as the organized working class – domestic helps.

When the lockdown began in March 2020 these helps – mostly women – faced a tremendous problem. First of all, they had trouble commuting daily to the city. Due to the unavailability of transport most of them were forced to remain in their villages.

The households they worked for asked them to either to stay back full-time or to quit their jobs. They were not ready to let them travel to their household using public transport as (according to them) that could increase the chance of COVID-19 infection. All this inevitably led to a fall in job opportunities and income for the women who work as domestic helps.

“It was a terrible time. Due to mass panic, the households were not ready to let us work as we work in multiple households. This termination from jobs led many of us into despair” says Anjana, a domestic worker, who works in South Kolkata.

According to her while the government provided them with some rations that was hardly enough to meet their needs. “If such a situation happens again we will all perish to hunger if not Covid” she says.

COVID Response Watch LogoAnjana also told Covid Response Watch that many members of these families work as rickshaw pullers or as other daily wage labor. During the days of lockdown these alternative modes of income too were restricted thus making their lives further difficult. She and many others like her have exhausted all their savings. In case of any future emergency they have no way to survive.

In Kolkata and its suburbs, domestic workers engage in different kinds of work, that include everything from cooking to cleaning chores to washing clothes. According to the type of work, they get salaries in the range of Rs.1000-4000 per month per household.

On an average a domestic worker earns about Rs. 3500 per month. As the main earning members of their families never get enough to provide for monthly expenses, their jobs are extremely important for their survival.

Domestic work has not been formalized yet and there is no specific law or regulation to safeguard the interests of this section. There is no job security, and they are dependent entirely on the whims of the house owners. There is no specific minimum wage system either. The wage often varies in amount from place to place and even from one residential complex to another.

Due to the absence of legal security it is very easy to terminate the worker from their job. Thus, during the pandemic, domestic workers suffered a huge amount of economic loss. Many activists working in the sector believe that it will take many years for them to make up for the losses incurred.

In the “first world” countries domestic workers have various rights and their jobs are recognized as ‘real work’. But in India domestic workers are officially listed under the broad and vague category of the unorganized sector. Socially too they lack any recognition for their work or contributions.

Unlike the traditional organized workforce, the women (and men) associated with domestic work don’t have a union to pressurize the employer for the demands such as clearance of wages etc. Due to this, and because of apathy from employers many workers were not given their dues during lockdown.

“Due to the absence of unionization often it becomes difficult for them to voice their demands”, says Priyasmita, an activist working among the domestic workers.

Simultaneously, as the lower and middle-income families too faced an economic crunch during this period, many were unable to pay the dues to their domestic helps. According to a survey conducted by SEWA of 795 domestic workers nearly 60% didn’t get their dues.

According to a report of the ILO, the official number of domestic workers in India stands at 4.75 million, of which 3 million are women. However, “this is considered as a severe underestimation” says the report. The actual number may be somewhere between 20 million to 80 million.

According to a report published by Business Standard, the number of domestic workers in India has increased by a staggering 120% in the post-liberalization period. COVID-19 related unemployment has definitely added more numbers to the pool. A huge chunk of the domestic workers is yet to recover from the COVID-19 related economic difficulties. If another wave of outbreak staggers the public life, it will become very difficult for them to go on without government intervention.

On the brighter side, in November this year the Indian government announced a nation-wide survey on the condition of domestic workers. The survey is meant to identify, count and understand the socio-economic characteristics of domestic workers such as maids, cooks, babysitters, care-takers, tutors and watchman, among others, and their employers.

The result of the survey, likely to be released by September 2022, is expected to help the government chart evidence-based data-driven policies. The survey, the first of its kind, will cover 1.5 lakh households across 742 districts in the country and will be conducted by the Labour Bureau.

Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur, West Bengal

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