Our Domestic Workers: Prisoners Of The Lockdown And Age-Old Biases

Will domestic workers continue to be imprisoned by the deeply entrenched discriminatory practices, or can they go back to better work conditions?

Anchita Ghatak Updated: May 30, 2020 14:41:34 IST
Our Domestic Workers: Prisoners Of The Lockdown And Age-Old Biases

Earlier this week, an offensive domestic appliance ad pointing at ‘maids’ as a source of infection in the employer’s home was sharply criticized on social media. The creative was withdrawn and the MD of the company apologized, but does this mean we can wish away the shocking discriminatory practices and attitudes in our homes towards our domestic workers? The lockdown simply became another setting in which a chronic and entrenched bias played out.

With the coming of the nationwide lockdown, most households were stuck without domestic workers (DW). There were multiple reasons why DWs could not move out of home—government regulations, their neighbourhoods deciding they shouldn’t go to work, their employers asking them to stay away and a small number voluntarily deciding to isolate themselves as a precautionary measure. In a heterogeneous and unregulated sector like domestic work, some were persuaded by employers to come to work after a few days. And some went to work of their own accord, despite the difficulties, for many different reasons.

We do not discuss this often, but, there is no comprehensive legislation for domestic workers in India. A draft National Policy was prepared in 2011 but despite attempts by DW organizations and other activists, this policy has not been finalized and nor is there any law protecting them. However, they are included in The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act (2008) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

According to estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are at least four million domestic ‘servants’ in India. The 2011 National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data put the number of domestic workers at 3.9 million, trade unions estimate the number to be around 10 million. We must acknowledge that the majority of domestic workers are women.

Housework in India is largely viewed as women’s work. Studies show that in heterosexual relationships across the world women do a larger share of it compared to men. By and large, women provide a great deal of the physical, intellectual and emotional labour that goes into running families and households, and that is true of both unpaid and paid care work. Most women domestic workers have little or no formal education—they are illiterate or barely literate—and their work conditions are negotiated verbally. Since domestic workers work in other people’s homes, it has often been an impediment in demanding regulations for their work conditions. Widely prevailing class and caste prejudices are normalized in the employers’ treatment of domestic workers.

Many apartment complexes in Indian metropolitan cities don’t allow domestic workers to use residents’ lifts and many employers don’t allow them to use their toilets. Workers consider themselves lucky if the employer’s house has a ‘servant’s toilet’. Many employers have separate utensils for their domestic workers–they can’t possibly eat and drink from the same cups and plates as their employers! In 21st century India, most domestic workers still do not get a weekly day off.

With every phase of the lockdown, some restrictions were eased and in early May, the government announced that self-employed service providers, including ‘domestic helps/maids’, could go to work.

Many domestic workers in Kolkata reported that although they had got their wages for March, they had not been paid for April. “I called my employer once the month ended. She asked why I wanted to be paid when I hadn’t gone to work,” said Nipa. Several workers reported that their employers were not taking their calls. “I went back to my employers, even though they didn’t pay me for April, because I am glad I still have a job,” said Dolon. “I have worked in May so I’ll get my pay.”

As strictures are eased, people in different professions will return to work and adjust to a new world and work conditions. As domestic workers go back to work will they find a more just, albeit physically distanced, workplace? If we are being shaken out of our old ways by the pandemic, shouldn’t we recognize the value of domestic workers too? Employers must start paying wages that are due, make sure domestic workers get adequate rest and leave, have access to a clean toilet at work and are also able to take basic precautions to protect themselves and their families from infection. As domestic workers return to work will they find a more just, albeit physically distanced, workplace? Let us hope employers can drag themselves out of the age-old entrenched biases—displayed in the now infamous advertisement and create better work conditions for the women whose labour makes their life easy and comfortable.


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