When the world was going through an unprecedented shut down the ancillary service providers such as newspaper vendors, railway station hawkers, street vendors, porters, cab, taxi and auto drivers were having a trying time. Their services were brought to a screeching halt due to sudden lockdown in the country. The entire informal sector suffered a catastrophic blow during the lockdown. However, one group that is often left out of the discourse are domestic workers. Their work is often low paid, insecure and invisible. The lockdown had shut down the source of income of a large segment of the self-employed domestic help.
The lack of social security for domestic workers dealt a harder blow on them. The nationwide lockdown brought tough times for a domestic help Billquis. Bilquis lives with her two daughters and husband in a small town in Bihar, and was three months pregnant when the lockdown was announced. Her husband worked in a tailoring shop and lost his job during the lockdown. Bilquis also had 7 guests at her place who were stuck due to unavailability of any transportation services. It was quite difficult for Bilquis to manage her living as only two employers continued taking her service. It also became burdensome for her when her landlord started pressurising her for rent. Wherever she went for seeking help, she was not allowed entry as people considered domestic help as carrier of coronavirus. At a time when she required proper nutrition, her circumstances forced her to sleep empty stomach. She was the only earning member of the family and in that wretched time, she was bound to work, even in her pregnant state. Frustrated with her financial condition she spent the period in sheer despair.
There are many stories that have come in the news about how the domestic workers have faced severe livelihood crisis. There are numerous reports that have documented the fact that several domestic workers were fired without pay during the COVID crisis.
In India, 78.4 per cent of urban women workers are in the informal economy of which 9.4 per cent are domestic workers. 4 million domestic workers across India were affected due to the crisis, in which the majority of them were women.
When most workers chose to head back to their village during the pandemic, Reshma a migrant domestic worker from Bihar who lives with her only daughter in Delhi, chose to stay back. Reshma’s is a story of resolution and strength. She is a single mother and works as domestic help in South East Delhi. During the pandemic she also lost work. She spent her days in distress, yet didn’t give up. She came to Delhi 16 years back with her little daughter to seek work as domestic help. Before lockdown Reshma was working in 7 homes and earned around 15-17000 per month. She lives in a rented one-room house and during the time of crisis was unable to pay the rent. She later sought help from one of her employer who turned out to be a saviour for her. Reshma says that she has never faced such a situation in her life. She also said that the government should give them guaranteed payment of wages to ensure their financial stability in times of crisis.
Now is the time when we should discuss the rights of domestic workers. The unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act was passed by Parliament in 2008 but even after 13 years, it has not been implemented by many state governments. However, some experts say that the law vaguely defined ‘domestic work’ as any work ranging from cleaning, cooking, caring for a child to nursing sick and old people ranging from unskilled to semi-skilled. The absence of a clear definition of ‘domestic worker’ or ‘domestic work’ dilutes possibility of their legal protection under this Act.
Even though we cannot imagine our life without them and their services, the question that we have to answer collectively as a society is why their services are not being given the due importance. They make our homes run smoothly. It’s because of them we remain in our comfort zone. Why don’t we understand that they also need basic essentials to survive? Many times their employers suitably help them in times of their need, many times they don’t. They had nowhere to go during Lockdown times and were in real distress. That must wake us all to the need for formation and implementation of sufficient and clear rules and regulations or laws for them as a working class. They are also entitled to social security and necessary aid from the government as many other classes of workers. That is overdue now.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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