Before Covid-19, said one young woman from Chennai, her mother, Gandhimathi, worked as a domestic staffer in two houses. Now, Gandhimathi’s both employers have told her not to return to work as the pandemic is showing no sign of receding.

“With no income, we are struggling with basic expenses like food and rent,” her daughter said. “They also ask us to get vaccinated, but we have not been able to do that yet. We request immediate assistance of any kind to help us tide through these times.”

When lockdown in March 2020 prevented domestic workers like Gandhimathi from getting to work, their absence was deeply felt as their employers had to do household chores themselves.

Domestic workers were among the worst affected during India’s lockdowns, as they were asked by their employers to stay home, often with little to no wages for the months they did not work and only meagre government support. As the number of cases receded later in 2020, some of them got back their jobs – only to hit a roadblock again in 2021 as the second wave swept across the country.

By taking low-paid work such as cooking, cleaning, and caretaking, female domestic workers enable their employers to seek or sustain paid outside employment. But they are largely ignored in any discussions on India’s labour force, made invisible by their gender and the nature of their work that would have otherwise been unpaid work done by the women of the household.

As unorganised labour, and often part-time, they do not have contracts, do not fall under labour legislation, may have no health or accident insurance, and are arbitrarily paid depending on what employers consider fair.

Domestic workers find themselves unable to talk to employers about wages or safe working conditions. Photo credit: Author provided

In May and June, when Covid-19 cases peaked in Tamil Nadu and the state went into lockdown, Mobile Vaani – whose community media platforms have been used by 20,000 domestic workers – ran a survey asking domestic workers about their livelihoods during the pandemic. Nearly 150 women responded from across Chennai, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Chengalpattu districts.

Livelihood loss

Before the first lockdown in 2020, most respondents (45%) worked in one household. A third of the respondents worked in two households. By the 2021 lockdown, 35% were not working anymore. A third managed to find or retain work in only one household.

“During this [2021] lockdown, only one of my three employers asked me to come to work, and today they too told me to stop coming,” said one respondent. “It has been extremely difficult to sustain ourselves with no wages.”

Over 50% said their wages had been reduced after the pandemic hit. Thirty-four per cent of the respondents had no income as they had not found any work after last year’s lockdown. Only 14% said their employers increased their wages in the course of a year.

“I work in three households, each paying me Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500,” said Kala from the Chennai suburbs. “I have worked with them for many years, and yet they have never thought of increasing my wages. When I ask them, they say that they can always find other workers who would be willing to work for less.”

Kala said she wished that the government would set a standard for how much domestic workers should get paid for different kinds of work, as they have done for construction workers. “This would help women like me who are hesitant to ask for a raise,” she said.

As it turns out, Tamil Nadu does have a minimum wage for domestic workers – Rs 37 an hour for an eight-hour workday. Notwithstanding this low amount, most workers do not spend eight hours in a single household, but an hour or two in several households. This undermines their ability to negotiate wages with their employers.

Besides, domestic workers often come from communities marginalised by caste. As women, their precarity is furthered by the threat of violence – economic, sexual, mental, physical – in their employer’s homes and in their own home at the hands of family members.

Given these factors, experiences like Kala’s are common, and domestic workers find themselves unable to talk to employers about wages or safe working conditions.

Stigma and fears

Since last year, domestic workers have been unfairly stigmatised as potential spreaders of the coronavirus. Nearly one-third of the respondents said their employers wanted them to be vaccinated before they returned to work, but few employers offered any support in the vaccination process. Twelve per cent were told to not ask for an increase in wages, or risk being laid off.

Since last year, domestic workers have been unfairly stigmatised. Photo credit: Author provided

Noori from Chennai was concerned about getting her shots. “I am not vaccinated yet because I have breathing trouble and people told me that I would die if I got the vaccine,” she said. “But our union leader has convinced me that it is safe, so I will try to get vaccinated at the earliest.”

However, accessing a vaccine is not easy. “I have been going to the vaccination centre every day for a week now, but they are always unavailable,” said Sulochana, also from Chennai, who has been asked to return to work only after she gets vaccinated.

Workers’ demand

The steep drop in wages forced over 50% of the respondents to take loans to manage their expenses. Another 30% mortgaged their gold. No wonder that their first demand from the government is for a monthly financial package until things get back to the pre-pandemic state. A few respondents asked for a higher minimum wage to be instituted (and strictly monitored) for domestic workers.

India is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Domestic Workers of 2011, which has guidelines on minimum wages, safe working environments and the right of domestic workers to unionise. But because India has not yet ratified the convention, these are not enforceable.

As per the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Act (2008), states need to set up a board for domestic workers and have them register to avail of various benefits, such as insurance, education benefits and more. Tamil Nadu does have a Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board, but awareness and registration remain low.

“We estimate that only around 3% of all female domestic workers are registered in the board,” said Palaniammal S, the secretary of the Garment and Fashion Workers’ Union, adding that there has been no census to count the actual number of domestic workers in the state.

“The application process is tedious and applications get rejected for reasons such as a mismatch in the spelling of the person’s name in the voter ID compared to the ration card,” said Palaniammal. “Why is the process so inaccessible, given that it is to cater to women who are most often not literate? Unions such as ours have to come in for this reason.”

She added: “We want the Domestic Workers’ Board to be reconstituted to include a domestic worker as a member.”

Lamuel Enoch manages Gram Vaani’s programmes in southern India. Vani Viswanathan is a communications consultant with Gram Vaani.