It Is Time to Stop Seeing Domestic Workers as COVID-19 'Carriers'

As domestic workers gradually re-enter the lives of the middle and upper classes, it is a moment for reflection on the conversation around the work of care, domestic work and class privilege that was amplified during the lockdown period.

In the past week as lockdown 4.0 got underway, many homes and housing societies in Delhi, Gurgaon, Chennai and several other cities opened up to allow numerous workers to come back into homes and neighbourhoods – domestic workers, cleaners, drivers and others.  

We have witnessed the terrible effects on migrant workers and others in the informal sector. However, one group that is often left out of the discourse (even when talking about the informal sector) is that of domestic workers. Their work is often low paid, insecure and invisible. 

Most domestic workers were not able to work in the 60-day period of the lockdown. While people were exhorted to pay their workers during the period, the truth is that many were not paid, were unable to manage rent payment or even get enough food. 

As domestic workers and others re-enter the lives of the middle and upper classes, it is a moment for reflection. While the virus and pandemic remain a threat to us all, it has also exposed the fault-lines in our society very starkly. Class, gender, and privilege have shaped how each Indian experiences the pandemic. 

First and foremost, we must stop looking at them as the carriers of disease. In fact, the virus is was first brought into the country by those who travelled internationally.  This is not a disease only of the poor. 

Also read: Increased Care Work, Reduced Wages: Informal Women Workers Are Barely Getting By

Secondly, domestic workers are equally vulnerable to getting the virus from people in the homes that they work, as they will need to move about many different homes. 

It therefore makes more sense to recognise that staying well is a common goal. These women also have children and elderly in their homes and need to stay well and work.  Therefore, this should be seen as a joint struggle against the spread of the virus. 

One can only hope that being involved in the work of care and cleaning over these past two months of lockdown may have brought about some recognition of its value in middle-class and upper middle-class households. 

The first thing we need to do is to stop using the term domestic “helps”. 

They are workers and should have all the rights of workers as defined by our laws. Unfortunately, they fall within the large informal sector where nearly 90% of Indian workers are located. Therefore, they do not have any recourse to law for safety, payment or welfare. 

The term “help” obfuscates and makes it seem like a social transaction, while in reality it is an economic transaction.  

There are more than 4 million domestic workers in India as per the NSSO data, though unofficial data puts it even as high as 90 million. While the latter may be exaggerated, studies show that it is at least 50 million. (SEWA 2014, Domestic Workers’ Laws and Legal Issues in India)

Over the years there have been different attempts at passing laws to ensure their rights such as minimum wages, regulating the number of working hours, mandating regular holidays as well as addressing physical and sexual harassment, but nothing has been formalised. 

While there are some legal instruments that give them a degree of protection, such as the Unorganised Social Security Act 2008 and Sexual Harassment against Women at Workplace Act, 2013, and some minimum wages provisions at the state level, there is no comprehensive legislation to address the sector. Though they are covered under the Sexual harassment Act, the fact that the home or several homes are the workplace make it almost impossible for women to avail of the benefits of the law. 

Also read: India’s Lockdown Is Blind to the Woes of Its Women

Therefore, their position continues to remain precarious and dependent on the goodness (or not) of their employers as none of the legislation has any way of holding the employer accountable. 

In addition to the informality of the work, its gendered nature also reduces its value. Domestic work in most homes across different classes is still largely the work of women. It is repetitive and invisibilised. Data in a 2018 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveals that in India women do 312 minutes of housework a day, while men do only 29.   

The lockdown period in India amplified the conversation around the work of care as it suddenly fell upon the middle classes to do much more themselves. While there were several social media discussions and posts around men’s involvement, it is unlikely the share of the burden shifted in any significant way. 

An Oxfam report released earlier this year ‘Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis’ showed that Indian women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day — a contribution of at least Rs 19 trillion a year to the Indian economy. Putting a monetary value to this is a step in the direction of appreciating it. 

Clearly, COVID-19 is going to result in a new normal in many ways, especially in the near future. In many ways it presents us with an opportunity and challenge – to enhance the value of the work of care and domestic work, address its deeply gendered nature, and reflect on the way class privilege operates in our society. 

Kalpana Viswanath is the CEO of Safetipin, a social enterprise that works on issues of gender and urbanisation and uses technology to collect data about urban safety.