Many kinds of labour remain unrecognised or are even taken for granted by society, until one undertakes to do such work by his or her own hand. That's something each of us has experienced over the last three months of the lockdown, as we have had to do all the household work in the absence of our domestic workers.
Having washed utensils at least thrice a day, swept floors every day, washed clothes and cleaned toilets, perhaps we will now be goaded into some serious thinking about what we can do for the people who silently perform these chores, almost unnoticed, and help us to go about our professional and personal lives without having to worry about any of it.
For my 'productivity obsessive' peers, domestic workers comprise the largest informal working force who step in to perform the largely gendered roles of women within a household, paving the way for these women to step out and participate in 'productive labour'.
Interestingly, the chores comprising household work, even though performed by domestic workers, remains largely female-centric: of more than 4.2 million domestic helpers, according to the National Domestic Workers' Movement, 90 percent are women. We are clearly a long way, even after a century of feminism's first wave, from breaking down gendered roles.
However, the question that many are voicing now is whether, in the post-COVID world, these workers will be able to secure for themselves fairer and more formalised work contracts. In this context, my research with a small group of domestic workers in Delhi (conducted for about three months with strong and helpful assistance of the field coordinators of Nirmana " a Delhi based NGO which works for labour rights of construction and domestic workers) has some useful pointers.
Social security: A battle for standardising expectations
Delhi, the capital city, is just like any other 'big city' " a host to numerous identities, workers and migrants. The vast slum dwellings in the North of Delhi, mainly Haiderpur and Shakurpur, were the places where I conducted my research.
Haiderpur is predominantly the residence of migrant workers from Bihar, the female members among them employed as domestic workers in neighbouring upper-class areas such as Rohini, Pitampura, etc.
Shakurpur, on the other hand, has a few lanes occupied by South Indian migrant workers mainly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, along with a significant settlement of Bihari migrants.
Over the one month of my research interactions with these people, I got a clearer idea of the issues faced by domestic workers in their occupational spaces. These included low wages, no income/salary cuts for days off, segregation (separate utensils; specifically assigned spaces to sit on, mainly floors; etc), no medical assistance, verbal abuse, no access to a toilet during working hours, no social security benefits etc.
Even though I was aware of all this and much more through the literature I had studied prior to the field work, learning about each of it through a first-hand source was a jolting experience altogether.
Domestic workers have been struggling for their rights for more than three decades now, both politically and economically. The fight has seen active participation of domestic workers and external players like organisations, lawyers, activists, etc. However, strangely, I saw that in all deliberations or movements, one of the most critical stakeholders was missing: the employers.
Every battle won, I felt, would be in vain if we failed to have the employers on board towards the betterment of the working conditions of domestic workers. In view of this, a pilot intervention was planned through a model that would ensure social security.
This model aimed at securing old-age pension for the workers here through the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Man Dhan Yojana, and have employers contribute to it regularly. The plan was to guide the workers to have their bank accounts linked with the mentioned scheme, and then convince the employers to pay their contribution.
The proposal proved far more difficult to execute than frame, and sadly, the intervention undertaken in two months ended with not much success. However, I wouldn't term it a failure either. We reached out to 90 domestic workers, spoke to over 15 RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) to seek permission for visiting individual employer households, and made over 30 such household visits. In the process, we got several important and insightful pointers from the responses of both the stakeholders.
Most domestic workers were reluctant to take me to any one of the multiple employers they worked for. In some cases this was due to a preconceived notion that none of them would be interested in participating; in others, they appeared uneasy with the very idea of having their liquid cash earnings transferred to their bank accounts. There was a sense of nervousness or fear over the fact that they would have to visit the banks every month to access their earnings.
On the other hand, employers primarily cited the unwillingness of the workers to receive online payments; in the absence of that crucial first step, the issue of contribution to the pension scheme was mostly left hanging in the air.
The perspectives of the domestic workers and the employers rarely matched, but there were clear indications of the scope of, and need for, more robust dialogue, counselling and guidance to shape the movement right.
The right time to rethink
The intervention proposed above " to bring employers to contribute to old-age pension scheme for domestic workers " is not an end in itself. It is just one important step towards formalisation of the employee-employer relationship in this occupation of domestic work. But maybe this period of lockdown amidst COVID-19 is the right time to rethink.
On the one hand, this is the best time for the employers to rethink the adequacy of wages for these workers. Have our domestic workers been able to see through this period of crisis, or have low savings due to low wages made sustenance itself a big challenge?
In saying this, I am not ignoring the fact that a lot of employers have been making efforts to still pay their workers partial or full salaries despite the lockdown. And here is when that first step towards progress " of crediting their salaries directly into their bank accounts " could be achieved.
The lockdown provides the best trigger as well as opportunity for the workers to switch to online transactions with employers. It would do away with the necessity of visiting multiple households in these vulnerable times, and more importantly, would signify a huge step forward in the long struggle to wards formalisation of employment.
Online payments would imply registered transactions, making it easy to keep formal track of wages paid to workers, violations and lapses. With this as a beginning, we may slowly move towards action that will ensure long term social security for this indispensable workforce.