Millions of domestic workers in India, an overwhelming majority of them women, have suffered reduced real earnings and increased debts in recent times. In fact in some cases even actual earnings have declined, while after taking into account the impact of inflation, the decline of real wages can be seen in almost all cases.
Aasmeen leaves her home in Shahbad Dairy, Delhi, early in morning in order to be able to cover all the four households in which her services are used, mainly in various cleaning work. At the end of all her toil in a month, she is able to earn just Rs. 5500 or so (the equivalent of about 76 US dollars). “Why can’t the rich see how difficult it is to survive on such earnings”, she says with a sigh, adding that there has been no raise for a long time, or else the raise offered has been so small as to be devoid of any real significance.
While low wages have been a chronic problem, COVID brought catastrophic times for domestic workers. Suddenly domestic workers were shut out from all livelihoods, in several cases even denied the wages already due to them. What is more, for most of them the loss of livelihoods continued even after lockdowns were lifted as normalcy took a long to me to be restored. Even after the storm had more or less passed, they were left with somewhat reduced employment (and therefore reduced earnings) as well as much increased debts taken at high interest rate to tide over the prolonged period of no employment and no earnings.
All this came on top of the earlier disruption and erosion of earnings suffered at the time of demonetization. Inflation has led to a significant decline in real wages.
Lack of good behavior by several employers and hurt caused to dignity of workers by them adds to the stress of domestic workers who get little rest and only poor nutrition. Illness is all too common in such conditions and if prolonged, can lead to loss of employment or simply inability to continue the toil any further.
Low wages make it almost impossible to support a family even at low levels of subsistence, and a woman domestic worker is often, but not always, a supplementary earner, with higher earnings expected from her husband’s earnings.
But given the prevailing conditions of poor health and nutrition and high occupational hazards, if her husband dies or is incapacitated (or otherwise unable to work), then a woman domestic worker faces very difficult times. On top of this if she too falls ill then she and her family appear to be collapsing.
Chanda Devi faced great difficulties following her husband’s death and more recently she had to undergo a surgery which has left her very weak and overburdened by a big debt. On top of it the widow pension she received for a short while has been stopped arbitrarily. Another widow Pana feels too weak to work now. Despite several efforts she could not get the widow pension or any other benefits, and has been passing through extremely difficult times.
Conditions are more difficult for those women who live in resettled colonies on the outskirts of the city as they also have to spend a lot of time and money in travelling to the places where they have worked before being evicted and shifted to outer areas. They are also denied the rest and family-care possibilities in-between work which are available to those living very close to place of employment.
Several domestic workers complain of rude and insulting behavior by employers. Some of them keep different utensils for them, some even deny use of their wash-rooms to them. This insulting and discriminatory behavior hurts the sensitivity of domestic workers. As one of them commented—how strange that every day they eat food which we cook and wear the clothes we wash, but will not share their utensils with us!
Stagnation of wage is a big problem. If a domestic worker, demands a higher wage following a long period of stagnation, the employer often finds someone else who is willing to work at the same wage rate. Hassles over denial of paid holiday or deductions made when the worker cannot come due to illness are commonplace.
In conversations a statement workers frequently make is that the rich do not seem to care for the poor at all, something which they observe from the daily interactions with richer sections. “Our services create the conditions in which they have enough time for their earning of high income, but they never give us the due reward and respect for this.” However they also agreed that a few employers, certainly a small minority, are different.
Clearly much needs to be done to bring relief to domestic workers, and the government should consider giving them a one-time grant to get them out of the extremely difficult situation that has arisen now due to several exceptionally difficult conditions. However a more durable solution also must be sought in comprehensive, rights and welfare oriented legislation to help them.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.