Address the needs of domestic workers
The second wave of Covid-19 will have a significant impact on women workers. Among those hardest hit are domestic workers, a substantial number of them being women. Many have lost their livelihoods and income.
The nature of their work — which involves entering the homes of their employers — made them such an integral component to the infrastructure of care in urban India (though, to be sure, the element of exploitation was deeply entrenched). But it is precisely the nature of this work, coupled with shocking levels of employer insensitivity, which have led to many being sacked from homes where they may have worked for years.
A study conducted by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) last year in Delhi found that women domestic workers were undergoing stress over the uncertainty of their work prospects and finding the resources to manage their homes. Many of their husbands had lost their jobs at that time. Since many were from other states, they often fell between the cracks when it came to accessing government relief packages or benefits. The situation has only worsened now with the second wave.
Domestic work involves a wide range of activities including sweeping, dusting, cooking, caregiving, child care and other extra work which does not always translate into extra pay. Most urban homes employ part-time domestic workers who bear the cost of travelling from their homes to place of work on a daily basis. Their children are out of school due to Covid-19 restrictions, and most of them do not have the means to buy smart digital devices for online classes. At best, the family shares one phone.
Employers tend to prefer part-time workers because they are easier to both hire and fire, and their terms of employment entail no benefits such as paid leave, medical expenses or lodging. With the advent of the virus, they were and still are viewed by employers as carriers of the virus, leading to substantial loss of employment for part-timers.
The sad part is that even for those still able to get work, many employers, themselves facing the economic pressure owing to illness or lack of employment, are offering lower wages, with the domestic worker unable to negotiate better terms for fear of losing out altogether. The sanitisation processes and testing demanded by many employers as a condition for work have meant additional expenses for domestic workers.
The government undoubtedly has its hands full tackling the vicious second wave of the virus. But it cannot leave domestic workers, mostly women, to fend for themselves. Faced with a loss of income, they are more vulnerable to domestic violence and, in extreme cases, trafficking.
The government must set in motion steps to fast-track registration of domestic workers across the country so that it can keep track of them as they move to different geographies. A provision of free rations for at least six months should be put in place for part-time domestic workers in urban areas who may not have the option of going back to their homes.
Full and part-time domestic workers have been instrumental in improving economic productivity, especially of other women, as their inputs have freed employers to go out to work. It would be short-sighted to overlook their needs at a time when women’s participation in the workforce is declining. They are a vital cog in economic recovery and as citizens, are entitled to relief from the State immediately.
The views expressed are personal