COVID-19 or not, domestic work is devalued in India, and so is the gender responsible for it

Trisrota Dutta

In India, there are over 30 million white-collar employees; for every two of them there is one domestic worker to run their household and most of them are women. The count of women entering the "domestic" sphere of "work" has risen by 120 percent and yet, they remain outside the ambit of social security and legal protection.

Women have successfully broken the public-private dichotomy by stepping out of their kitchen only to be trapped in the kitchen of their wealthy employers; their role in the economic boom has been reduced to homely affairs yet again. Domestic work has not been recognised as productive work. While we argue in favor of equal pay for equal work irrespective of gender, sharing of domestic responsibility irrespective of gender continues to be a myth. Domestic work is devalued and so is the gender responsible for it. In this conundrum, the services provided by domestic workers go unnoticed and often under paid.

The lockdown insinuated by the pandemic made employment more uncertain for the domestic workers. Few days into the lockdown, households requested for their domestic workers to rejoin work, especially where senior citizens resided. Stepping outside and moving across houses made them more vulnerable towards contracting the virus but they could not turn away from their source of income and employers who depended on them for care work. They were forced to go to work, after all for most people in India, a life without livelihood does not exist.

Despite the contribution of the domestic workers to the care economy, they work long hours often with meagre wages. It is no different as the situation has worsened due to the pandemic. As they stepped in for front line work, their employers began looking at them as carriers of the virus owing to their nature of work. This led to the rise of the two-fold problem of unemployment for some and social stigmatisation for all. The faultlines in our society created by class and caste based discrimination were once again prominent and prejudiced towards the domestic workers.

According to International Labour Organisation's (ILO) assessment made at the beginning of June, 55 million domestic workers are at a risk of losing their jobs around the world. In India, the count of domestic workers ranges from the NSSO estimate of 3.9 million as declared in 2019 to 15 million predicted by Harish Rawat, Minister of State for Labor and Employment.

Media reports, however, have been citing the number to be as high as 90 million. ILO reports have pointed out the vagueness in the data available considering its vast range of what is published and what is assumed. The data indicates that the domestic workers in India are employed mostly through informal channels not registered under the government. Due to this, they lose out on welfare benefits by the government and run higher risk of unemployment.

Their work is denoted as "help" and perceived as a social transaction when in reality it is an economic transaction. Their place of work is someone else's private space, therefore the violence meted out to domestic workers do not catch the public eye and is shoved under the rug as a personal and private matter preventing them from using their rights as labourers. The employee-employer relationship is informal, making it more difficult for the state to intervene with its laws and subject it to state regulation. Even existing laws such as Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 fail to protect domestic workers.

When most workers could choose to head back to their villages during the pandemic, domestic workers were strapped off that choice too. Unlike the migrant workers who have a foot in the village, domestic workers have been living in the cities for longer durations and feel a sense of semi-permanence. When the lockdown descended and continued, their estranged relation with the villages did not permit them to head back and find employment under MGNREGA or get involved in farming activities. This has, once again, raised the dire need for social security and protection for domestic workers.

While social security and protection for laborers is defined by several laws, a critical study of these legislations stand proof how the laws lack uniformity and in some cases happen to be contradicting and nullifying the objective of social security.

In 2008, the Government of India passed the Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act (UNWSS Act) extending to provide social security and protection to all unorganized sector workers, including domestic workers. However, it 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.

In 2016, the amendment to the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, stated that employment of children (below 14 years) and adolescent (below 18 years) is prohibited along with employer being fined if proven guilty. However, in the UNWSS Act, any individual who is above the age of 14 years is permitted to work making it difficult to curtail child domestic workers from being employed.

Many attempts have been made by MPs, civil society organisations and Domestic Workers' Unions but a consensus regarding such a legislation has not been reached. The two prominent attempts have been the private member bill introduced by Shashi Tharoor in 2016 €" The Domestic Workers' Welfare Bill and a draft compilation by National Platform of Domestic Workers (NPWD) called the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill, 2017.

In the long run, a legislation in favor and for the domestic workers need to be implemented to protect and grant domestic workers equal right to minimum wages, social security, skill development programs and forming unions at par with the other workers of the unorganized sector. As forerunners in the care economy, domestic workers need protection from social stigmatisation and spread of COVID 19 instantaneously too.

With an increasing tension on the health infrastructure, patients with minimum symptoms are being advised to undergo home medical care. This has increased further dependence of the employers on their domestic workers. Thus, the need of the hour is to enable domestic workers to continue their work while minimising health threat and socio-economic hurdle.

The workers require basic level of protection at work, the onus of which partly falls on the employers. By ensuring basic hygiene in the houses of the employers, a safe work environment can be ensured for the domestic workers. It is important that in case any member of the employer's house develop flu like symptom, the domestic worker should be notified and adequate measures should be taken to prevent them from being exposed to patients of COVID 19 without protective gear.

The other immediate aspect is guaranteed payment of wages to ensure economic stability in times of a pandemic. Most importantly, now and in the long run it is a prerequisite to recognise domestic work as productive labor and its multiplier effect towards economic growth to help in achieving social and economic welfare for domestic workers.

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