“You all must have only heard that poverty exists,” Ranjana Mishra, a domestic worker living in Lucknow said. “However, we experienced it closely during the pandemic. For many days we only survived on roti and salt.”

Mishra’s own struggle with destitution during a pandemic-induced economic emergency affecting India’s largest informally employed female workforce reflects the plight of millions of female domestic workers living across cities of India. During the summer of 2020 and 2021, the pandemic-induced lockdowns led to most female domestic workers experiencing extreme shocks to their incomes, leading to a rise in poverty and hunger.

Since 76.2% of the workforce in the domestic worker segment are female, the economic impact of the pandemic has differently affected the group with catastrophic gender-based consequences.

Some of these structural issues have been exacerbated because of the extent to which domestic work remains an “unprotected”, “unorganised” space for women suffering from social invisibilities. Contextually across the nation, most paid domestic work has remained outside the purview of all state-supported systems of relief or rehabilitation. It is as if these female workers do not exist.

“Do not talk about the government. For them, I do not even exist,” said Neha (name changed), a domestic worker living from Bhopal.

To ascertain the shock-impact of Covid-19 on female domestic workers, our research team at the Centre for New Economics Studies, OP Jindal Global University undertook a three-month-long extensive field study, documenting narratives of more than 250 female domestic workers through a randomised survey across cities of Bhopal, Katni, Lucknow, Jhansi and Pune, where our research team members were based.

Our temporal analysis revealed detailed findings of the shock impact on workers’ consumption, employment and income patterns across three time periods: pre-Covid, during the first lockdown (March 2020-May 2020) and the more recent period (May-June). Before we look at the results from the study, some background context is critical.

Background context

India has continued to exclude domestic workers from the list of scheduled employment under the Minimum Wages Act, 1984. In a few cases when the state departments have undertaken this issue, their provisions have only reeked of ignorance that would worsen the situations of these workers.

What keeps the central government from probing into the sector is its associated informality. Structural liberalism separates the “public” from the “private”. It divides the human social world into at least three distinct spheres – “state, market and family”. Under this viewpoint, governments can only appropriately interfere in certain spheres to make room for liberty.

When it comes to domestic workers, the binary becomes a blur as their workplace is unique – it is not an office, factory or site, it is someone else’s home. By addressing these spaces as “households”, we do not imagine a place of work. This subtly practised ignorance propagates further invisibilisation and informality amongst the workers – and makes it difficult for their voice to be fairly captured in an already stratified worker landscape.

Laxmi Jadhav, a 40-year-old domestic worker working in Pune. Photo credit: Jignesh Mistry

Covid-19 effect

With restrictions on mobility, closure of public transportation and rising fear of contracting the virus, most (female) domestic workers were asked to not visit their employer’s homes during the lockdown. Some workers lost employment prospects but were able to work in at least one house. In contrast, other workers spent time in complete unemployment.

“In the lockdown, I stopped working for six houses,” said Suman (name changed) from Pune. “Only one house calls me for work now.”

The gradations of loss of employment in our study were captured using the employment categories of full-time, part-time and live-in work (applicable for domestic workers). Full-time workers are hired by a single employer while part-time workers work for more than one employer for a specified number of hours per day. In contrast, live-in workers work for a single employer and stay in the premises of the employer’s house/in a dwelling provided by them.

Our data indicates 72.4% of the respondents were part-time workers and 19.2% were full-time workers in the pre-pandemic times. However, during the lockdown, many part-time workers lost all their employers except one, changing their status to full-time workers. Around 146 workers found no employment prospects at all and were unemployed.

In the words of Urmila (name changed), “No one calls us for work now, all employment is lost.”

Source: Author's calculations

The pandemic-induced fall in employment was accompanied by depressed incomes. Previously, 56.8% of the workers were earning in between Rs 3,001 to Rs 6,000. However, only 22.8% of the workers were able to earn this during the lockdown. The number of workers earning low wages (Rs 1 to Rs 3,000) increased from 30 to 33.

Meanwhile, the number of workers earning high incomes (Rs 9,000 to Rs 12,000) fell from 17 to two during the lockdown.

Source: Author’s calculations

Suffering from absolute poverty and grim financial conditions, domestic workers were in desperate need of money and support. Some employers extended help in terms of goodwill payments and ration, but the community was on the brink of destitution.

As Vineeta (name changed) from Lucknow said “The lockdown has forced us to abandon our homes. We now live in a place where we have to stand in long lines for even drinking water”.

Following the poverty-inducing lockdown, income levels improved in May and June as 140 workers reported earning between Rs 3,001 and Rs 6,000. Those previously out of work during the lockdown also found some employment in houses that paid less than Rs 3,000. This marks the gradual economic recovery to pre-pandemic levels.

Urmila (34) working at one of her employer’s houses. Picture Credit: Jignesh Mistry

Food security

Low incomes have characterised female domestic workers as a vulnerable group when it comes to food. In accordance with the four pillars to food security – access, affordability, utilisation and stability – we notice that the nutritional intake of female domestic workers in India has always been on the edge.

Problems with the closure of shops and the fall in incomes during the lockdown only exacerbated their plights. As a result, many respondents like Ranjana raised concerns about food during the pandemic that forced them to cut back on consumption.

Rice, wheat and pulses are dominant in the diets of the respondents and saw sharp changes in the food consumption patterns as reported during the lockdowns. This observation seems convergent with earlier findings made by Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Dufflo (2011) on how even the poorest of households are not “calorie hungry” yet severely malnourished. Similarly, the diets of female domestic workers were observed to be high in calorie intake but deficient in micronutrients.

The real nutrition gap is seen in the consumption of fruits and dairy. Consumption of dairy was reported by 80% of the sample with an average expenditure of Rs 775, pre-Covid. This fell to 77.6% during the lockdown with an average expenditure of Rs 750.

Like rice and pulses, the dairy intake by the households has increased currently, however, it is yet to reach its pre-Covid levels. However, the consumption of fruits is reported by an even smaller proportion of the sample. On average, 70 workers were found consuming fruits before the pandemic which dropped by 51% during the lockdown.

Source: Author’s calculations

“If we cannot afford even simple food, how can we consume milk and fruits?” asked Urmilla (name changed) from Katni in Madhya Pradesh.

With an already insufficient diet, the pandemic has been rightly reported as a nutritional crisis for such workers. It further reflects on the everyday insecurity that domestic workers are surrounded by that does not even guarantee them their next meal.

Government aid

During this tumultuous period, government aid in terms of food and income support was essential. Since many workers live under the poverty line, they are entitled to free ration under the Public Distribution System.

Pre-pandemic data indicates that typically, 31% of the workers were availing such benefits. Since Public Distribution System gives access to grains such as wheat and rice, this formed for one of the reasons why there was not a large decrease in their consumption in the pandemic as seen above despite severe negative income shocks.

We saw an increase in the number of households receiving government aid during the lockdown of March 2020-May 2020 to 51%. Additionally, Rs 500 bank transfers to Jan Dhan or Zero Balance Account holders were initiated during this time. While there was major positive reportage over this step, our study shows that less than 10% of the workers received this transfer.

Currently, the number of households receiving government aid is just a little over the pre-pandemic levels. This reflects that the government did deploy targeted relief packages during the pandemic. However, our study cannot comment on whether the aid was enough from a policy point of view. What we do have evidence for is that despite these measures a large proportion of the workers expressed concerns over accessing ration, insufficient wages and unfeasible medical facilities during the lockdown and even currently.

As the dark days of lockdown are in the past, female domestic workers are focusing on improving their current circumstances by seeking employment. The gradual economic recovery is on their side, but outcomes cannot improve drastically until they are given their deserved recognition under law and policy.

It is no surprise that the virus had impacted large sections of the society – from businessmen and employers to workers – but the extent of its impact on female domestic workers established how vulnerable they are, clearly demarcating the line between the privileged and unprivileged.

“I thought I would have a better life ahead, but Covid has dragged me behind,” said Sapna (name changed), a 23-year-old from Katni talks about how the virus has pulled her back in life. Sapna has been working as a domestic worker since 2014. In January 2020, she was hired as a receptionist in an office in her town. The company shut down in the lockdown and she seeks financial support from being a domestic worker once again.

It is difficult to see how amidst rising formal unemployment amongst all demographic groups and a worsened informalisation of the existing workforce (worst impacting women), lives of domestic workers like Sapna, Urmila, Ranjana, Suman (and many others) can change for good in the months-or years-going forward.

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of Economics and Director and Jignesh Mistry is a senior research analyst and the Visual Storyboard team lead at the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts, OP Jindal Global University.

Advaita Singh, Vanshika Mittal and Shivani Agarwal are all senior research analysts with the Centre for New Economics Studies and Richa Sekhani is a senior research analyst with CNES and Research Associate at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

The authors would like to also thank Sunanda Mishra for all the research assistance provided in undertaking fieldwork and interviews in Lucknow.