Bengaluru: "My children did not understand why we could not eat when we were hungry," said Saraswathi R., a domestic worker from Bengaluru's Shantinagar area, recalling the difficult days after a national lockdown was announced in March 2020 to contain Covid-19. Saraswathi had been working in six houses before the pandemic and all her employers, except one, stopped paying her wages during the lockdown.

With her monthly earnings down from Rs 10,000 to Rs 500, Saraswathi and her three children often went to bed hungry. "How was I to feed my family with this money? It was very hard for me to bear that," she said. Saraswathi, who is in her 30s, has been working in Shantinagar for 10 years and last year, she said, was the worst she ever faced.

The 2020 lockdown and later, the partial state shutdowns, have hurt millions of informal workers in India, with female workers bearing the brunt of the crisis, say multiple studies conducted by think-tanks and workers' unions.

Nearly 60% of the 795 domestic workers interviewed in December 2020-January 2021 said that their employers did not pay them during the lockdown, as per a survey commissioned by Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA).

In December 2020, six months after the 2020 lockdown, 31% of domestic workers had not found employment and even fewer had received support from their employers, as per a telephonic survey of 75 workers across New Delhi and Gurugram, Haryana, published in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in May 2021. Of these workers, 29% were the sole earning members of their household, 21% cared for an elderly family member, while 20% dealt with someone who had a serious health condition. The respondents, who knew no other work, could not find alternative sources of income.

The lockdowns hit India's informal sector hard, threatening nearly 419 million informal workers who comprise 90% of all workers in India, said the 25th report of the Standing Committee on Labour presented in the Lok Sabha on August 3, 2021. Citing anecdotal evidence, it said the second wave was more severe than the first in terms of "significant income losses particularly in the informal sector, pushing the vulnerables deeper into crisis".

The community of domestic workers remained hard-hit, and registered delayed and low levels of economic recovery even in 2021. Increasing fears of transmission and lockdown rules deprived them of wages and employment, as we explain. Since few domestic workers are registered with the labour department or unions, there are hardly any laws regulating their wages, working hours or workspace. All this increased their vulnerability to indebtedness, poverty and harassment, we found.

Loss of income, job stability

Lakshmi, 45, who opts to go by her first name, has been working as domestic help in Bengaluru's Kumaraswamy Layout area for over two decades. Before the pandemic, she worked for six households and earned a total of Rs 11,000 per month. Now, she works in just one home at Rs 1,500 a month.

Lakshmi's employers were mostly students and young professionals who lived in rented flats. But with offices and colleges shut, they moved back to their hometowns. "Most of the tenants I work for are bachelors and when they went back, they did not pay me for April-June [2020]," she said. Very few of these tenants have returned to the city, she added.

The national, and later state, lockdowns during the first and second waves of the pandemic offset decades of hard-won progress made by the domestic worker community in terms of gainful employment and steady incomes, said a June 2020 study of 2,396 workers across Bengaluru. The study was conducted jointly by four activist groups--the Domestic Workers Rights Union, Karnataka (DWRU), Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmikara Sangha (BBGS) and Mangelasa Kaarmikara Union.

About 87% of the 2,396 workers were told not to come to work once the lockdown was announced in March 2020. They were not sure if and when they would be called to work again. Further, 91% (2,180 workers) lost their April 2020 salaries. Of the 396 workers surveyed in the BBGS areas, 86% (341) lost their jobs. Overall, nearly 50% of domestic workers over the age of 50 were fired.

The SEWA survey in Lucknow, Delhi, Ranchi, Thiruvananthapuram and Ahmedabad, also found that their monthly earnings took a big blow after the lockdown

Source: National study on future of work for the informal workers, SEWA

As per the workers, average monthly incomes fell from Rs 5,740 before the lockdown to Rs 4,841 after it. Kerala reported the least drop in wages while Delhi registered the highest, 29%.

According to the report, wages were decided on the basis of the rate prevalent in an area and the time taken to perform various tasks. However, all workers said they felt their salaries did not match the labour involved. Over two-thirds (67%) of the respondents admitted to never having received increments, and only 25% of them said they received a yearly raise. Over half of them also received no benefits apart from their salaries.

Food intake declines, childcare burden rises

Reduced food consumption was a direct impact of the wage loss suffered during the economic crisis brought by the lockdown. "In order to meet daily necessities, they borrowed from friends and family at higher rates of interest," said Manali Shah, national secretary, SEWA. Also, not every ration cardholder had access to the ration they were entitled to during the lockdown, she added.

The average age of the survey's sample was 40 years, and 47% of 725 workers had at least one child between the ages of 0-14 years. "Childcare was also a big issue for the informal sector as most were not encouraged to take their young children to the houses where they worked," said Shah. She added that the workers and their spouses were not equipped to help their children navigate digital education.

More than 25% of the workers also reported an increase in their workload, the EPW study showed. "The employers are now misusing the desperate condition of domestic workers to extract a higher quantum of work without adequate compensation," said the study.

The report flagged that some of the workers were forced to relocate farther away from their place of work due to higher and unmet costs of living. It also found that domestic workers who normally shared transportation costs with their fellow workers now had to commute alone. This affected their earnings and some opted to walk the entire distance to their workplace.

Discrimination, apathy from employers

The SEWA study also found that on average, domestic workers worked for 27 days a month; Jharkhand reported the highest number of workdays, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh followed. India's informal labour has burgeoned since the onset of the pandemic. "In order to support their families, workers have to enter different trades for more income sources," said Shah. She said the fears of transmission or infection have compounded the discrimination faced by domestic workers.

Source: National study on future of work for the informal workers, SEWA

When asked what facilities were available for the workers, 83% of domestic workers said their employers offered them drinking water, food and snacks; 68% were allowed to use the washroom, and 35% had a designated place to rest. About 9% of workers reported not having any of these facilities. Employers almost always docked their pay for taking more off-days than the "allowed" half-days on festivals.

While 81% of the workers said they were treated with respect at work, 4% reported verbal abuse and 0.3% said they dealt with sexual abuse, the study found.

Domestic workers complained of other kinds of apathy from their employers. Sharda M., a member of DWRU, Karnataka, said she was asked to produce a letter containing details of her employer, the number of years working for them, and copies of her Aadhaar while applying for government relief. Her employer readily provided those details, but her peers were not so lucky. "They asked 'why should we give our details, they will call and disturb us'," she said.

There were other kinds of discrimination, said activists. "The second wave was harder on the domestic workers as they were branded as carriers of the virus," said Sonia George, the secretary of SEWA Kerala. Some workers said employers were not keen on retaining or hiring those who travelled by public transport or had not been vaccinated. George also said a few workers had contracted Covid-19 from their employers but got little assistance from them, financial or otherwise.

Legal precarity and red tape

The lack of data on domestic workers means that they often slip through the cracks when the government announces relief measures. Migrant domestic workers, Shah said, are worse off because the government does not know how to reach them even if it wished to.

An analysis of labour legislation in India shows that domestic workers are not included in the scope of several labour laws because of constraints in the definitions of the 'workman', 'employer' or 'establishment', a 2014 research by Women In Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO), a global network focused on securing livelihoods, said.

Since domestic workers are employed in homes, they are excluded from the basic laws that guarantee job safety and personal security like the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; Maternity Benefit Act, 1961; Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923; Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979 and so on.

WIEGO mentions the need for a comprehensive legislation akin to the Domestic Workers (Conditions of Employment) Bill, 1959, which still remains unlegislated. There is a need for a special sectoral law that will "regulate employment, conditions of work and provide social protection simultaneously. This includes fixation of wages and other conditions of work, resolution of disputes and protection of employment besides provision of social security, childcare facilities, housing, training and skill formation", stated the report.

Nearly 54% of the domestic workers surveyed in the SEWA report said they had no contract and 38% admitted to having only an oral agreement. More than half of them were not allowed paid leave and only a quarter got monthly leave, they said.

Relief measures from the government

Roshni Bharti, a domestic worker in Varanasi, remembered how she hadn't received wages for the whole of last April, and almost always suffered wage cuts after that. She was not an enrolled beneficiary under any government scheme such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana or the Public Distribution System.

Data from the interviews by IWWAGE found only a small percentage of the workers having ration cards and drawing benefits from the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, as a large proportion of them were not registered beneficiaries. They did not have below-poverty-line cards--needed to access subsidised food grain--or caste certificates for various benefits.

The Kerala-based domestic workers surveyed were members of the Kerala Social Security Welfare Board, and thus entitled to pension at retirement, health assistance, education assistance for children and small support during the pandemic, the report said. However, in Uttar Pradesh, the workers had no knowledge of any government schemes.

The Karnataka government, in June 2021, announced a one-time monetary relief of Rs 2,000 for 11 categories of unorganised workers, which included domestic workers. As per Sharda, one of the requirements is a ration card and not every worker has one made in Karnataka. "We have workers from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and they have state ration cards. Which is why their applications were rejected." Acknowledging this, the Centre announced the One Nation One Ration card scheme in 2020 to bridge this gap. A few were also rejected for holding faulty Aadhaar card numbers. "Only a few, especially union-card holders, have received the amount," she said. Union card holders are domestic workers registered with the DWRU.

DWRU Karnataka said accessing this monetary relief measure was riddled with complications. "They are asking them to produce proof of employment. When we challenged that, they agreed to letters and address proof attested by the employers," said Radha. K, an activist with the union. Most workers do not know these details, even if they have been working in their household for years, she said.

Municipal officers argued that they could not process relief measures without proof that the workers were registered. "Domestic workers are also being made to run from pillar to pillar even as the approval process drags on slowly," Radha added.

For Saraswati, things have improved. "Now that the lockdown has eased, they are inviting me back to work and paying me," she said of her former employers.

Note: This story includes data from the unpublished "National Study on Future of Work for the Informal Workers" study by SEWA, intended to be released soon. Therefore, in case editors/readers wish to republish or amplify this story on other platforms/social media, request you to please state this disclaimer at the start/end of the article/post.

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