A Dehumanising State of Affairs: Domestic Work during COVID-19
Updated: Jan 31
By Aneysha Roy
*All workers' names have been changed to protect their identities
A prominent narrative that surrounds informal workers in India throws light on their marginalisation, vulnerability, and abandonment from social security protection by the State, which has characterised their lives for decades. The burden of this precarity is doubled as it is both borne by working women, 90% of whom work in the informal sector (Bonnet et al, 2019), and the experiences of marginality and abandonment are gendered in their manifestations. The state of work conditions, access to resources and health services vis-a-vis one’s identity in terms of class, caste, gender, and migration status has largely been determined through a stagnating ladder of social mobility for very long. However, with the onset of the pandemic, such conditions have only multiplied exponentially and been laid bare in their raw, exposed forms This qualitative report explores some of these aspects through conversations with domestic workers, during the COVID-19 lockdown in Maharashtra, India 2020.
In welfare states, social security is deemed to be the responsibility of the government in power, instead of the employer. Such values are spelled out in the Directive Principles of the State in the Indian Constitution, which though not enforceable, are considered necessary in the process of governance (Robson, 1954). Apart from the fact that there are no national laws specifically for the protection of domestic workers, erstwhile social security schemes like the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act (2008), or the recent Code on Social Security (2020), initiated by the government have generally been in the form of national and state level Social Security boards which have mainly had an advisory role to play, more than specified institutional power. The access to benefits under these schemes are conditional upon the registration of workers under these boards, which falls within the responsibilities of the district administration. Social security for domestic workers within Maharashtra fall within the ambit of State level Welfare boards, which have steadily lost their functionality and accountability, with no scope for revival during the lockdown. Hence, during this health emergency, the domestic workers were completely left to fend for themselves as the Government merely appealed to employers across the country to pay their workers while work was closed, without any statutory mechanisms to enforce the same.
Likewise, the absence of social security benefits from work contracts is highly normalised by employers and employees alike in this domain, within conditions of work. Throwing light on the situation, Payal (domestic worker) recounted, “I asked on my own. I didn’t even know if people would actually give or not. But other people in my locality said that some of their madams were giving, so then I asked my madams, that other didi log (female employers) are giving money, so you will also give na? Some said that yes, we’ll ask around a bit and then give, or maybe we’ll give on our own later on. So we didn’t force anybody. How can I, I didn’t work na.”
It ultimately fell back upon the invisible contract that institutionalises the reality that in such a socio-economic setting, one can only get payment, as long as they are in the condition to work and are working. Any deviations from this tenet will result in abandonment from remuneration and everything it brings with it. A stronger advocate of this invisible arrangement was Basanti (domestic worker) as she remarked, “I didn’t ask anybody. One has a sense of self-respect right. Without working, how can I be paid?” The very fact that the encroachment upon self-respect as a concept featured in the discourse of right to the idea of social security, possibly suggests how ingrained the devaluation of paid care work is, among the female workforce. On average, the women said that they had to sit at home at least for 3 months to a maximum of 7 months during the lockdowns to contain the pandemic, when they lost out on more than half of their collective incomes. Once the regulations eased up, most of them started getting called back to work, but only by a few when compared to the total number of households that they used to work in before the pandemic. This meant that they had reduced salaries but more stressful work conditions given both the COVID 19 protocols and a mounting pile of debt.
Women reported difficulties in breathing through their masks while taking on labour-intensive tasks within the household. In some cases, the line between enforcement of safety protocols and the right to personal liberty and dignity became increasingly blurred. Radha (domestic worker) shared that apart from wearing a mask and gloves before coming to work, she was sprayed with sanitiser from head to toe at the security checkpoint and again by her employer at his doorstep, before entering the house. On being asked how that made her feel, she said, “Now what can one do. Doing it is necessary right?” In such a situation, the idea of consent becomes highly contentious. This shows how as a result of COVID and related social conditioning, women in this profession are being pushed to relinquish personal agency and autonomy concerned with their own bodies. According to Srivastava and Shukla (2021), the role of RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) in gatekeeping through promotion of stigmatisation of workers through barring of common spaces among other discriminatory practices have led to high levels of fatigue and feelings of alienation among women workers.
The work relationship shared with the employer is also seen to be tied to the general air of informality which characterises the work contracts of the domestic work in terms of decided wages, work hours, and holidays, without any institutional intervention. Since there is no fixed set of regulations that is followed to govern such transactions, the women take up work as much as they can manage on a daily basis and the remuneration is dependent on a price mutually agreed upon by both parties, subject to rates charged by other domestic workers in the vicinity. Generally, during the process of negotiation, the domestic worker first puts forth their expected rates for each task (like cooking, cleaning, dusting etc.) they are willing to do and in some cases, expected benefits like bonus during diwali, monthly and yearly holidays etc. Then the prospective employer either accepts or engages in further conversation to try and reduce the rates and conditions being touted. In case an agreement is achieved between both parties, the domestic worker is hired. Therefore, the market economy is allowed to function in order to determine competitive rates of the informal workforce working in the care sector.
. The degree of social capital and networks possessed by the worker to some extent, helps determine the balance in the transactions made. The workers reported the presence of camaraderie between the employer and employee, conditional to certain work arrangements as useful in gaining a better wage rate. Compliance with existing work conditions and benefits, however arbitrary in nature, is encouraged as a redeemable work ethic by the working women themselves. Some feel that it reflects on their capacity as a worker, while many others primarily accept what they receive due the lack of other options.The worker’s compliance to arbitrary work contracts and conditions, brings us to the last sub theme of their mental well-being, especially when viewed in the larger context of the lockdown, pandemic and the sustainability of such arrangements during that time. Despair and a sense of helplessness characterised a large part of the conversations surrounding the thoughts of the participants regarding the memories of the lockdown and their future.
Some of the women spoke about resorting to prayers as a form of coping mechanism during the time.“It’s never happened that I’ve not had work na. I’ve never seen a time like this. So I would feel like god, please let this time not last. It felt like anyone can die at any point, when woud work start again, and I don’t even have the habit of sitting at home either na. That’s why. I would pray everyday that this illness goes away quickly. But what to do now”, said Basanti. A few others, like Jaya spoke about an experienced sense of denial about the dramatic changes which happened in her life and progressive anxiety and stress about the same.
She said,“I would get thoughts wherein I would wonder why did this have to happen, why did this come. How did it come? Is it reality or is it a lie? And even if it has come, why is it staying for so many days? Why doesn’t it get over fast? Now whenever any disease comes, it would quickly get better through medicine! Now why is it lasting for so long. It felt very strange. Helpless.” After a point, most of the women communicated that they had surrendered themselves to their fate, whatever may it be, in the due course of the pandemic. This period also seemed to have further reinforced their sense of class and caste identity, which played such an important role in determining their access to resources in a period of dire want.
As the conversations came to a close, imagining the future of their work, or even any different work turned out to be difficult for most as they had lived more than half of their lives in the stagnancy of certain conditions. Lastly, the State as an entity did not configure in their responses at any point when the discussion revolved around questions of their entitlements and rights, especially in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic.The relationship between the role of the State as an entity responsible for their work and living conditions was found to be remiss from thinking and aspirations of the workers in which self-support and social networks formed the main components of their proven mediums of survival. What united most responses was a helpless sense of gratitude for the few jobs that the workers had been able to retain during the pandemic, and a quiet resolve to expend and mould themselves into any form required to ensure the survival of their children and families.
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About the author: Aneysha Roy is a social development practitioner and research consultant who has past experience of working closely with marginalized communities in India including women, adolescents and children across rural and urban spaces, specially across the domains of health, education and livelihood. She is a postgraduate from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and her specialization is Community Organization and Development Practice. Her research interests include women and informal work, and sexual and reproductive health among adolescents in urban informal settlements.