Unlike many of her neighbours, Laila – a domestic worker in Delhi – has not lost her job yet. Since the Covid-19 lockdown was announced, she has not been allowed to enter the gated community where she works. Her employer recently gave her a partial salary for the month of March, but she is not sure whether she will be paid for April.

She is now unsure what the future holds for her, her husband who works as a rickshaw driver and their three children. A migrant from Uttar Pradesh, Laila fears that much of what she has achieved in the city over the past eight years could be swept away in the crisis.

Laila’s case is an indication that the pandemic will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the urban working poor, most of whom are part of the informal economy, and that these effects will not be gender neutral.

Women form a massive part of the informal economy. In fact, a larger percentage of women, compared to men, work in the informal economy and are concentrated in low-paying, highly-precarious sectors. Not only do they facing higher risks due to their social disadvantages and poor working conditions, they also have fewer resources at their disposal to address these risks.

For example, home-based workers, who work from their own homes to produce goods and services for the market, are left with nothing right now. Estimates suggest that one-third of all women workers in India are home-based. The current crisis and market closures have meant that they are no longer receiving work orders from contractors. This has led to a complete breakdown of cash flow. Soon, hunger will set in.

Double burden

Meanwhile, work is only one risk factor. Women also shoulder a disproportionate responsibility for care-giving, both inside and outside the home. These duties will increase their likelihood of exposure to Covid-19.

For instance, women carry the disproportionate burden of carrying water when private water connections are not available, and common toilets are not just hygiene risks for many women but also sites of violence and harassment. Poor habitat with lack of basic water and sanitation services exacerbates vulnerability to the disease.

By definition, informal workers do not have any social security, including health insurance. Public health service provision – whether preventive, promotive, or curative – is not oriented to take into account workers’ needs. Any Covid-19 strategy must rectify this.

It is time for us to go beyond relief and develop recovery measures that target not just the formal sector, but also informal enterprises and informal workers. The three mantras – “leave no one behind”, “do no harm”, and “nothing for me without me” – should be the guiding principles for this strategy.

Women and children in Mumbai’s Dharavi, a Covid-19 hotspot. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Devising a strategy

Income security is a must. Domestic workers and home-based workers have a right to leaves with pay during the lockdown period. The government must give direct cash transfer or handouts, equal to the monthly minimum wage, for a period of at least three months. This can be extended upon further review of the situation.

Employers cannot be left off the hook either. There is a need to ensure that employers’ collectives – brands and corporations for home workers; and resident welfare associations for domestic workers – recognise women workers and extend minimum wages and social protection to them. Government pressure must move beyond mere statements asking employers not to not retrench workers to concrete enforceable directives.

Recovery funds need to be set up, akin to the ones likely to be set up for formal firms and enterprises. There should be government and employer contributions to recovery funds for domestic and home-based workers. Sectoral Worker Welfare Boards, where they exist and are active, can be a route to sourcing benefits, as has been done in Kerala. Registration of workers to these boards need to start immediately.

Governments need to guarantee reliable access to health care and housing for all. The Employees’ State Insurance Scheme, a social health insurance programme for the formal sector working classes, can be universalised to cover informal workers too. Information on preventive and protective measures needs to be translated for non-literate women.

It is also important to ensure that legal and policy gains made by women informal workers are not reversed. For instance, attempts to modify the Labour Codes, especially the one on Social Security, must not take away more than it seeks to give. All kinds of employment, including home-based workers and domestic workers, need to be covered. But more critically, the design and delivery issues need to be addressed as well, specifically for women informal workers.

New opportunities

What offers some hope is that the current crisis has revealed to all the crucial role that informal workers play and how these oft-ignored “unskilled workers” are actually essential workers.

There are many ways in which livelihood opportunities can be created for informal women workers during the pandemic. Retrenched domestic workers can be skilled to become care workers, and home-based garment workers can address the ever-increasing demands of personal protective equipment and masks. ASHAs and Anganwadi workers, who are the most important public health outreach workers, should be acknowledged and compensated with adequate wages, economic benefits and social protection.

Following the principle of “nothing for us, without us”, women workers through their organisations need to be allowed to participate in both, the design and delivery of relief and recovery measures.

Registering women as workers entitled to benefits like decent pay and welfare access would provide an opportunity for trade unions and women’s organisations to rearticulate women’s work and contributions. Their voices must be heard while framing solutions to Covid-19, but also to the crises of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

It cannot be business as usual in the post-Covid-19 days. Things will change, and so will we. This is the moment for us to acknowledge the deeply unequal structures of our society and the precarity with which the vast majority of workers live. Poor women are particularly vulnerable – and the current crisis should force us to rethink and reorder this for a more just and equitable world.

Shalini Sinha is India Country Representative for Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing or WIEGO, a global network focused on securing livelihoods for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.