Helping the helpers

This is an opportunity to strengthen the mostly absent social protection nets of domestic workers

June 16, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

A municipal worker fumigates to contain coronavirus pandemic in Guwahati. File

A municipal worker fumigates to contain coronavirus pandemic in Guwahati. File

The fact that India’s cities run on the backs of workers is known, but what is often unacknowledged is that so do many private homes. Domestic work is one of the biggest employers in India’s large informal economy, especially in urban areas. It is also one of the largest employers for women. Yet, not enough focus has been placed on working women in our discussions on COVID-19 and the lockdown — there are no special economic packages for domestic workers unlike, say, for construction workers. Soon, the rhythms of domestic life will be faster and more consistent, just like before. And like always, an entire set of activities and hours of labour will escape the purview of lawyers, economists and politicians alike. To understand how COVID-19 and the lockdown have impacted domestic workers, we conducted a rapid, telephonic survey of 500 households in Jaipur, Rajasthan, in mid-May.

When the lockdown began, there were appeals to employers to not withhold salaries for domestic workers. Yet, in an informal workplace with no formal job contract, these appeals are unenforceable. In March, 51% of the respondents said they were not paid fully indicating some compliance by employers. However, 89% said they were not paid at all in April. Ground reports suggest that May was no different. This has had an immediate effect on worker households. The income of domestic workers is 50% of the total household income. It is the more regular form of income supplemented by other members who are generally daily wagers. So, what happened to these households?

No savings left

First, it is important to recognise that these households were vulnerable even before the COVID-19 outbreak. On the eve of March 25, the average holding of rice and wheat in each household was less than 8 kg. On an average households had operational savings worth barely 15 days with most households reporting only 10 days worth of operational savings. In the best cases women reported operational savings worth 23 days, far less than the time they had to ride out without income due to the lockdown. In the survey, 44% of women domestic workers reported having had to borrow money to ride through the lockdown period.

To make matters worse, according to the participants of the survey, rents have not been forgone but deferred. Dues (rent, water, electricity) that need to be immediately attended to following the lifting of the lockdown are far more pervasive and higher in value than borrowings. The average due across 500 households was about ₹8,700. Close to one-third of the households had dues worth ₹10,000. Only about 12% reported not having any dues at all. Non-negotiable expenses such as milk, vegetables, fuel, oil and masalas cost them ₹100 per day. These have been largely managed from savings, borrowings and incurring debts as also with forgoing meals at large. In short, loss of income has meant that households have lost the thin layer of savings they had, and have left the lockdown with debt.

Second, the related dimensions of job status and income are not very encouraging either, with 25% of the workers saying they were asked not to return to work. Another 25% were unsure if they would be called back. Job status and dues when seen together present a red flag. The average debt (excluding dues) in households where domestic workers were recently ousted from their jobs was about ₹6,800. It was ₹2,400 for those who still had their jobs. Hence, what we stare at is not just a plunge in economic condition but the withdrawal of the very means that can be a way to repair it.

These workers, despite the hardships, haven’t left the cities and don’t intend to do so. The city and the state will soon rely on them to restore normalcy. But can that be achieved if they continue to battle precarity of income, job, nutrition and housing on an everyday basis?

Need for health insurance

With the lockdown being lifted, many workers will be quietly let off, while others will slowly return to work — poorer, saddled with debts, their little savings wiped out. Recovery without compensating for wage loss and erosion of savings in the form of cash transfers is impossible. A health insurance against COVID-19 for every domestic worker is the only way the government can formally recognise the risks involved in their job and the problem that an infection can cause to their lives. But for all this to happen, they will first have to be recognised and workers have to be enrolled in government registers. It is both a need and an opportunity to extend and strengthen the frayed and mostly absent social protection nets to those who run our cities and our homes.

Meva Bharti is the convener of the Jaipur-based Rajasthan Mahila Kamgaar Union

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