Domestic workersform the backbone of most middle- and upper- class households in India. The nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has caused hardships to women on both sides of the divide. Women from well-to-do households suddenly find themselves overburdened with housework atop other commitments, while domestic workers are faced with an uncertain future.

Reports from Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore suggest that domestic workers are still being called to work despite the lockdown. While there are some reports of employers giving their domestic workers paid leave, other reports have come in of people firing or temporarily relieving their workers to save money. In some cases, domestic workers are not able to physically collect their salaries, and don’t have bank accounts or access to electronic payments.

Economic hardships

A survey we did recently of close to 400 domestic workers found that the women’s income was critical for their family, with 86% reporting that a loss in income would disrupt the functioning of their households. Further, 69% considered salary as the most important attribute of a good household. As many as 85% of the respondents reported a household income of less than Rs 20,000, with half of the respondents reporting a household income of less than Rs 12,500.

What’s more, the women’s husbands, who work mostly in unskilled sectors, are also facing job and income uncertainty.

By the end of the pandemic, the resulting economic contraction will lead to many workers losing their jobs. According to data from the Centre for Monitoring India Economy, this contraction has already, with the unemployment rate at 23% in the first week of April compared to 8.7% in March.

It’s worth asking to what extent the lockdown will protect domestic workers and their families from contracting the virus. The pandemic is likely to have arrived with employers who had travelled abroad. There were reports suggesting that the virus had been transmitted to domestic workers as well. In cases where domestic workers contracted the virus before March 25, the lockdown won’t help much.

Moreover, their homes are likely to be located in cramped locations with shared bathrooms and water sources, which leaves little hope for physical distancing. Even if the virus has not yet arrived, domestic workers risk higher exposure as they travel more frequently to procure rations and other necessities. These women also have a lower nutritional status hence, lower immunities.

In addition to the loss of income and threat of contracting the virus, these women may also experience increased domestic violence. The United Nations Secretary General and the Chairperson for National Commission for Women in India have issued warnings of a surge in domestic violence due to home isolation and social distancing. One of the women we interviewed told us that the main reason she worked was to escape abuse at home by her husband and in-laws. Unfortunately, she faced harassment at work too. Many of our in-depth interviews revealed patterns of alcohol abuse at home by the husbands coupled with domestic violence.

Most domestic workers live in space-starved environments which makes physical distancing impossible. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

At the end of the lockdown period, middle- and upper-class households will see shrinking incomes and try to reduce expenditure, including on workers’ salaries. At the same time, domestic workers will seek more work given that their husbands will be unemployed. In our survey, less than 40% of the domestic workers agreed with the statement “it is easy to find new work.”

Call for change

Against this backdrop, we need to frame a national policy for domestic workers. Such a policy has been in the works in various forms for over a decade, but has never seen the light of the day.

The current lockdown demonstrates the perpetually precarious nature of these women’s financial situation and the urgent need to address this. Domestic workers do not have formal contracts and they have been working this way for much of their life, most even before 20 years of age.

A national policy aims will allow them to register themselves as unorganised workers, form unions, and will “facilitate their access to rights and benefits”. It can also start the conversation on domestic workers’ right to a minimum wage, social security, and access to a grievance redressal system.

Women from middle- and upper-class households, despite shouldering an unequal amount of household load, get a great deal of support from their domestic help.

A 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Indian women did six hours’ worth of household chores every day while men did less than one. In a way, domestic workers help reduce these inequalities between men and women in these households. It is about time we provide them with some semblance of security and support.

Pritha Dev is the chair and Akshaya Vijayalakshmi is a member of the Gender Centre at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.

The other authors who were part of the project for National Human Rights Commission are Aruna Divya T and Vaibhavi Kulkarni. Both are faculty at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.