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Our Domestic Helps Need Help, Too

Our Domestic Helps Need Help, Too

What we and our government could do for the nearly 4 million workers who have served us

“Entry of all domestic help/maids is being stopped.” This is the very first point of a notice issued by a housing society in Mumbai on March 23. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, several such societies across India have restricted the entry of domestic workers. This has left 3.9 million domestic workers in a lurch, of which 2.6 million are women, who have not been given protections.

Hema Rathod is one such domestic worker who lives in the same society where she works. 

“I have been supporting a family of three since my husband passed away 15 years ago,” said Hema. She has been working in 4-5 households for 10 years. But due to the fear of infection, all her employers have asked her to find an alternate job for the time being.

Her daughter, Chandrakala, has been helping her since she turned 20.

Maa-beti milke jhaadu, pocha aur bartan karte hai (My daughter and I sweep and mop the house and do the dishes),” Hema said.

Since the older population is more vulnerable to the virus, Chandrakala has asked her mother to stay at home for the next 4-5 months. Meanwhile, she continues to work as a live-in maid to sustain her family, earning around 8,000 rupees every month. They live in a small one-room maid quarter. Thankfully, their landlord has not pressured them to pay the rent. But that takes care of only one aspect of life.

As per a study released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 72 percent of domestic workers employed worldwide have been affected by the pandemic. And even though live-in domestic workers like Chandrakala haven’t lost their jobs, they are significantly affected because of long working hours and additional cleaning tasks. In some cases, they aren’t even getting paid.

Owing to the low literacy rate, women in India find domestic work as a convenient source of livelihood. In the Asia and Pacific region, which includes India, 76 percent of domestic workers have been significantly impacted. Forty-four percent of them are women. 

Seventeen-year-old Vishnu, Hema’s son, is the only male member of the family. He is a Class XII student and spends most of his time attending online classes with a phone in one hand and a notebook in the other.

Hema said, “We got a notification from his college to pay the annual fee, which is 5,000 rupees. But I don’t have the money right now.”

She is considering asking her former employers to chip-in, but doesn’t have high hopes. She is hoping for a miracle to get her out of this situation.

Hema Rathod spoke with StoriesAsia in Mumbai.

Hema is illiterate and said she didn’t know much about the virus except that it is risky to go out. So she has chosen to stay home and intends to start looking for work after the Diwali festival. Until then, the family will get by with her savings and her daughter’s salary. “We will spend five rupees instead of 10 and will have to live miserly for now,” she said.

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With no proper laws to regulate the informal workforce, these women who help others maintain their homes are left to fend for themselves. India recognised domestic workers only about a decade ago through the Unorganised Sector Social Security Act, 2008. It defines informal workers as those who have no job security or employer-provided social security.

A recent assessment of the Labour Statistics System in India by ILO suggested that about 81 percent of earning Indians are employed in the informal sector. Furthermore, among salaried employees in the non-agriculture sector, 51.9 percent were not eligible for any social security benefit. This number, when broken down, comes to 51.2 percent among men and 54.4 percent among women.

But that is not the only problem. Scamsters regularly pose as placement agencies and trap migrant domestic workers in the name of a job in a big city. And even the 2,000-odd legitimate agencies in the national capital alone exploit young girls economically and take a cut from them with the promise of skilled labour jobs which would earn them more money. Sometimes, there is sexual exploitation, too. The lack of proper policy makes life difficult for domestic workers in more ways than one.

In January 2019, the labour ministry drafted a National Policy on Domestic Workers which would register domestic workers as part of the unorganised sector. This means they can form associations or unions and set a standard for minimum wages, get access to social security and work on enhancing their skills. The policy also aims to protect them from abuse and exploitation along with access to courts and tribunals for grievance redressal. It also calls for regulating private placement agencies.

But the legislation is still in its drafting stage and the pandemic, meanwhile, has accentuated the troubles of this invisible layer of our society. With the global health emergency forcing individuals to do household chores themselves, everyone is realising the crucial role of domestic workers in their lives. This part of our society has been seeking the government’s help for a long time and their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

During the coronavirus crisis, let’s not force the many Hemas of this country into oblivion. It’s time we stopped treating them like second-class citizens, if not second-class human beings. Let’s find ways to continue to employ and pay them.

And for the central governments, it’s time to expedite the process to enact the National Policy on Domestic Workers.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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