Between Household Abuse and Employer Apathy, Domestic Workers Bear the Brunt of Lockdown

The nature of their work has exposed female workers to a higher degree of abuse and exploitation in the absence of an underlying social or economic safety net

An indifferent government’s response to the current pandemic and its economic impact is now presenting a set of scenarios that is likely to exacerbate deep-rooted inequities, otherwise entrenched in different socio-political, economic forms.

One particular group worst affected by the economic crisis, particularly within the unorganised or unsecured worker space, has been that of the domestic workers. The plight of the domestic working class (mostly women), toiling hard in India’s rich urban metropolises, often at the risk of higher exploitation and indignation by the elite class (of higher-income urban households), is widely known and written about.

Noted sociologist Dipankar Gupta has often written and spoken about the inherent failure of the elite middle-class residing in urban metros to empathise with the lives of female workers, both experientially and in terms of understanding their material state of being, calling it the problem of intersubjectivity.

Such concerns around ‘intersubjectivity’, as part of the troubled modern relationship between the elite and the (lower) working class, existed long before the pandemic, and now it seems, the divide has only been further intensified.

According to an ILO report of April (2020), estimates show that the economic crisis arising from COVID-19 and the government’s response to it is likely to further push almost 40 crore informal (unsecured) workers into absolute poverty. This estimate includes more than 200 million women employed as domestic workers. The actual numbers may be far worse due to (pre-existing) concerns in statistical accounting of unpaid, care workers.

In making sense of the micro-scenario, as part of a recent study undertaken by the Centre for New Economics Studies over last few months, we made an attempt to understand the extent to which women working as domestic workers (across different cities) were impacted during the weeks of a curfew-style lockdown (and since the unlocking process began in some areas).

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

During our study, we spoke to over a dozen female domestic workers across cities of Bhopal, Chandigarh and Jhansi- those being hometowns of our team members who interviewed the domestic workers employed by households in their own respective residential colonies.

Our research team, conducting a mini-ethnographic survey over seven to eight weeks, explored how a pandemic induced lockdown affected female domestic workers (of different ages); to what extent the government’s response and aid support (in form of food-ration) affected their intra-household consumption patterns, and given the unsecured nature of work, what are some of the psycho-social costs faced by these women domestic workers (in terms of domestic abuse and violence). Whatever direct assistance was offered to the workers by the government in the form of food aid and ration-support involved serious administrative (and distributive) concerns in implementing the aid schemes at the ground level.

Here, we share some key observations from the survey.

Lives and livelihoods

As the lockdown was enforced across the nation, many resident welfare associations (RWAs) exercised absolute discretion in restricting the entry (and mobility) of domestic workers in (urban) residential colonies and apartments. This made many workers lose out on day-to-day work with very few receiving any cash (or kind) support from their respective employers.

When asked whether she received her wages from employers during the lockdown period, 40-year-old Babita from Chandigarh, said, “my employer provided me with gas and money along with some other employers giving some cash money, and our family barely made it through”.

Amongst all respondents interviewed, 85% responded by saying that like Babita they had received some cash-support from their respective employers which had helped tide them over the first two months of the lockdown period. Without the cash-support, and without any safety net, they didn’t have any other alternative channel for soliciting any help (whether from the government or anyone else).

Figure 1: Source of Direct-Support For Domestic Workers During Lockdown

Most workers felt that the increased sense of social responsibility amongst the elite, higher-middle income class employers was largely because of the observed inefficiencies in the government’s response to the pandemic. The glaring visuals of the migrant labour crisis across cities, according to some respondents like Babita, made most employers pay salaries even if the workers couldn’t enter their homes to work.

However, on the other hand, many who couldn’t manage to get cash-support or were rendered jobless because of the lockdown were left at the mercy of the state to receive food and ration-support.

Thirty-five-year-old Asha from Bhopal said that as a single wage earner in her household, it became very exhausting for her to stand in long queues for ration packages without receiving any help from her husband. She had to return empty-handed on most days. As a result, she ended up borrowing most of her food ration on credit from the local kirana store close to her house.

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

Similar narratives emerged from Chandigarh and Jhansi, where most respondents (like Asha) could not avail food aid provided by the government either because they lacked a ration card, or had a ration card with the address of their native village, or could not put up with long queues daily which made it difficult for them to get access even when supplies could be made available.

It was also interesting to note how most female domestic worker respondents said that they were asked by their husbands and other family members to stand in crowded queues and get the ration which made them more vulnerable to being infected from the virus itself.

Patterns in household consumption during lockdown

When asked about how her daily household consumption level was affected by the lockdown, 37-year-old Priya from Chandigarh said that her family and children had skipped many meals across days and were able to have only one decent meal in a two-day period.

She, and her family, survived on the food-packets they had received from social organisations and other community-outreach efforts (near her residence). Her inability to receive state-provided food aid was because of her ration card address, which was of her native village and made her ‘ineligible’ to get ration.

Asha also echoed a similar concern about not being able to receive food aid despite pleading to the distribution centres. “I think the people in charge of the ration centres were taking advantage of helpless people like us and hoarding government aid for themselves,” she said.

While studying the change in consumption patterns during the pandemic for most domestic workers, the most noticeable change (as seen in Figure 2 below) was observed in the consumption of milk, milk-related products, and vegetables. There was an observed reduction of up to 50% in the consumption of milk in most households.

Figure 2: Patterns in Household Consumption During-Lockdown

While for many urban and semi-urban households across India, milk and vegetables are part of the staple or essential diet, we observed how these became a ‘luxury’ during the lockdown because of broken supply-chains. As a result, many female respondents with children of one or less than one year found it difficult to provide basic nutrition and milk to their children. Most had to borrow money from people nearby to buy milk (at higher prices) for their children while many couldn’t afford to do even that.

Also read: How Have the Centre’s Food Distribution Schemes Performed So Far?

Forty-five-year-old Aarti from Jhansi said that the lockdown period saw an exponential rise in her basic household expenses. This added to her family’s plight when she and her husband couldn’t earn anything.

Aarti from Jhansi. Photo: Author Provided

The psycho-social cost of being vulnerable

Apart from the exacerbated vulnerabilities from external factors or the outbreak of the pandemic, this group of workers also face serious concerns in terms of mediating their own intra-household relations (with their spouse and families). Three of our respondents, each from Bhopal, Chandigarh, and Jhansi reported that an increased incidence of abusive environments in their respective homes and were desperately looking to return to work despite the risk of getting infected or breaching the enforced lockdown restrictions.

Rashmi from Jhansi injured her right arm during the lockdown while driving her two-wheeler. However, she could not find any assistance from her spouse or her family to get her arm treated at a clinic or a nearby hospital. She faced abuse from her own spouse and attributed his behaviour to “lack of a stable job”. She has been the sole-earning member in her family and takes care of her children from her earnings as a domestic worker. During the lockdown, that became difficult and also led to a higher incidence of domestic violence from her spouse.

Rajni from Jhansi said that she couldn’t disclose to her own family that her employer had given her wages in advance for the period of the lockdown. This was because every month her husband and other family members would take her income without giving her much to manage her personal expenses. She feared that the wages she had received in advance would again be spent on some frivolous expenditure She stayed with her employer – at her place of work – for the duration of the lockdown as she was scared of the abuse she would face at home from her spouse and family.

Rajni from Jhansi. Photo: Author Provided

Two other respondents, Asha and Priya (from Bhopal and Chandigarh respectively), narrated a similar pattern of domestic violence and abuse that they faced during the lockdown and shared experiences similar to that of Rajni. In all cases, three points were common: the abuser was their husband or his family members; their husbands didn’t have a job; and, they (husbands) were alcoholics and would beat them for money.

Asha said that her husband was borrowing money from her ex-employer – whose household she had escaped with great difficulty after facing abuse. Now, with her husband borrowing money from the same person, the debt was being added to her name and had imposed a huge financial burden on her.

“COVID-19 may not kill us but hunger and debt definitely will,” she said.

The US and Western European countries along with developing nations like Brazil, South Africa etc. have acknowledged the depth of this problem and the pandemic’s disproportional impact on the unsecured working class. It has implored them to expand coverage of state-funded emergency lending plans to cover contractual workers, gig-workers, and others in the unorganised workforce.

Also read: The COVID-19 Lockdown Will Ravage Prospects for India’s Female Workforce

However, India, on the other hand, has largely left almost all of these workers – including domestic workers – to be hung out to dry, offering little to no actual support. The vulnerability of women, working as domestic workers or in other informal forms of work, has left them without any underlying social or economic safety net.

Moreover, as seen in the cases of Rashmi, Rajni, Asha and Priya, the nature of their work has exposed each one of them to a higher incidence of abuse and exploitation at hands of both, the ‘employer’, and their household members. This crisis has exposed them to higher vulnerability while challenging their basic livelihood and survival.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to surge even now in most tier 2 and tier 3 cities across India, the plight of domestic workers and others who are a part of India’s large informal, unorganised workforce may further worsen, pushing many into states of extreme poverty.

Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University. Kensiya Kennedy and Mansi Singh are senior research assistants, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. Shivani Agarwal is senior research analyst, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities.