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Home Work: Imagining a New Deal with Domestic Workers

Civil Society | Others | COVID-19 | May 8, 2020

This is an edited version of a panel discussion on “Home Work: Imagining a New Deal with Domestic Workers” with Geeta Menon, Amita Baviskar, Alok Prasanna, and Vikram Rai, in conversation with Rohini Nilekani. The event was hosted by the Bangalore International Centre.

Globally, one out of every 25 women is employed as a domestic labourer. In Bangalore, there are four lakh domestic workers, and in India, the number is closer to four million. These workers are employed to do care work in the house, and as a consequence of this they are often a part of the household’s most intimate spaces. Perhaps one of the most complicated relationships in the world of labour, the imbalance of power between employers and the employees is exacerbated in countries like India, where neither party is fully aware of the rights and laws around domestic work and the right to wages, leave, and other entitlements. While domestic workers often don’t have a written contract, the state has also failed to make provisions for them in terms of a pension scheme or any entitlements.

In the absence of this information, employers often find navigating their relationship with domestic workers very tricky. How much should they pay and for what service? Is there any flexibility? How much leave is fair? Not to mention the softer aspects of the relationship and how domestic help should be treated. Should they eat the same food as their employers and sit at the same table? Should they share the same bathrooms? We need to speak more openly about what is wrong and needs to change.

With the country on lockdown during the pandemic, we have been given an opportunity to think about what our future will look like. Will we start doing our own housework and perhaps buying more labour-saving devices like vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, as the West has done? Alternatively, perhaps we will value our domestic workers more, and refashion our contracts with them in a positive manner.

Defining the Law, the Worker, and the Workplace

As Alok mentions, laws cannot substitute organisation. We cannot put the onus of the law on the individual worker to go out and access the institution, whether it’s the labour office, judiciary, or tribunal, because they do not have organisational support to assist them. We need to think about how workers are going to access and enforce those laws. Laws like NREGA, while well intentioned, have never really thought about the enforcement aspect of it — they just assume that organisations working in the same area will help workers. Instead, we should look at whether we can give these organisations a role in lawmaking, and ask for help in realising these rights. For example, because we have welfare legislation, there’s a law covering informal sector workers. However, these things are very distant for domestic workers when we don’t even have a basic definition of who domestic workers are. Without a legal definition, how can we tailor solutions for this particular set of workers?

Our current labour laws imagine men as workers — the term used for the longest time in our labour laws is ‘workman’, referring to someone who is going to work in a factory or industrial establishment outside his home. The imagination of the law is built on a certain social understanding of who is a worker. So when we talk about laws being needed, we need to think about how those laws follow downstream from an organisation which can help women take advantage of them in the first place. Alok points out that we also need laws to be local. While there is a common understanding of who a domestic worker is, if we hear from them directly we can see that their work conditions are very different. They all do very different kinds of work in very different households. So the legislation has to be something that addresses local concerns.

When thinking about the law and domestic help, Alok also mentions C189, which is an international labour organisation convention (2011) that has been adopted by India, and talks about household employment, workforce, and so on. There are two broad kinds of models of domestic workers. The first is a full-time, live-in worker. These are people living and working with their employers, and are entitled to their rights. However in India, we think that they are to be ”treated as part of the family” and that never happens. The second kind of domestic workers are those who prefer to work in different houses during the course of the day, and as such are in need of protection as well.

Now in these two broad models, there are differences. Many live-in workers tend to come from outside the state — another problem the law does not acknowledge. We don’t know how many domestic workers there are. So before we create a definition of who a domestic worker is, we need to conduct a survey of some sort, to find out how many people fall within this net in the first place. After that we can try and figure out what the legal protections are that can be offered to them.

However, when it comes to domestic workers not only do we have problems with worker definition, but also with workplace definition. Geeta mentions that during lockdown, the concept of working from home does not apply to domestic workers because they work in somebody else’s house, which is still not recognised as a workplace in the law. On the one hand, some basic work has to be done to reach common definitions and make the laws more robust, and on the other hand we also need intermediary organisations that can act as a bridge between the individual who is affected and the legal system itself. This is especially tricky in the case of domestic workers because, unlike in a factory where there may be trade unions, they are alone in an employer’s house. If they are being abused, made to work too hard, or paid too little, even if they know their rights, they are still inside a family home and cannot be agitationist.

These women are devalued as people in their place of work. What they are looking for is respect, recognition, and social security. Although they are part of the large sector of the informal workers, they are last in the hierarchy of work. Geeta argues that policies that don’t take workers’ voices into consideration and instead frames laws for them, will inevitably fail. When helping these workers assert their rights in somebody’s home, the most helpful thing has been teaching them the art of negotiation. We need to talk to them about their rights and how to demand them, in order to create a shift in power.

Domestic Workers During COVID-19

In the first month of lockdown, many domestic workers shared that despite the fact that their employers had visited other countries, they weren’t informed of the same or even asked to get screened. Only in April were they told to stay home from work. The advisory from the labor department to the RWAs was focussed on sanitisation, hygiene, and maintaining the security and safety of the employers. There was nothing in the advisory about whether domestic workers needed to be brought into work and how they could be protected. Geeta further points out that as lockdowns are being lifted, many employers are not hiring domestic workers back, citing safety concerns. In some apartments, they’ve been asked to stay off the lawns and use separate lifts.

To fully understand the role of domestic workers during COVID, it might be helpful to bring in the two phases of lockdown that Vikram referred to. According to him, the first phase was when the lockdown came in. Here, things were easier because the guidelines were prescriptive. Everybody had to stay home, so there wasn’t much room for confusion. However during the second phase, when the relaxation measures came into force, many posed uncomfortable questions about domestic workers. There was a lack of clarity on the guidelines surrounding letting domestic workers back into people’s homes. Between the residents, RWAs and the government, domestic workers’ voices were being left out of the equation. Vikram’s term for domestic help is ‘invisible essentials’, since they are so invisible in our lives, though they keep us going on a day-to-day basis. Going forward, how do we make these workers more visible and make their essentiality relevant? Are employers willing to change, pay fair wages, give more leave, be less discriminatory, and think about the safety of these domestic workers, instead of only their own?

An interesting approach here is the health insurance programme for domestic workers that Vikram and his team are launching. Their programme, MADHURA, is an attempt to build ownership between domestic workers and their employers, to be participants and collaborators in their health. However, one of the major challenges to this will be how reliant domestic workers are on private households. If something happens inside the private homes, most RWAs do not have the right to investigate. In order for things to change, this needs to be addressed. RWAs need to think about how they can inspire a sense of responsibility and compassion within their residents.

Gender, Caste, and Domestic Work

When people picture a modern middle class Indian family, they imagine a nuclear family with a husband and wife at the center of it. But Asmita argues that they don’t acknowledge the third person in the household — the maid. Domestic workers allow middle class women to go out of the home to work. With the lockdown, many men and women now realised that they had to do that work. In a way, the invisible became visible and people realised just how hard it is to do this work, day after day. This new reality is forcing us to address the unequal gender division of labor.

Indian women are still expected to perform two sets of duties. One is the traditional role of the homemaker, and the other expectation is that she will also be a wage earner and work outside the home. The only way that middle class women can reconcile these two tasks is by hiring another woman. There are any number of studies that tell us that in most countries, the gender division of labor continues to be deeply unequal. Even women who work outside the home, do more domestic chores than men. Despite having appliances, it’s usually women loading dishwashers or putting dirty clothes into the washing machine.

Perhaps this pandemic will force people to confront the issue. However, as Amita highlights, this is difficult because our cultural norms are still based on the idea that a woman will carry out these chores. For example, the idea of someone staying in the kitchen and cooking hot food to be served is ingrained in our recipes. We need to think about our expectations of a good wife or mother, and whether there is a different way to negotiate having the things we love while not depending on their labour for it. In other countries where domestic workers are employed — and with global inequality rising, their numbers have been increasing — they are generally treated better than they are in India. This is a consequence of the caste system, which is an ingrained part of our lives.

Due to a history of making certain communities do jobs that were considered unclean, we now blame them for being unclean by association. During the pandemic, this has resulted in the idea that domestic workers might infect people if they are allowed into the households they work in. Now more than ever before, we need to examine our practices and the ways in which we discriminate against people, and consider how they are part of the larger struggle for gender justice, social justice, and the fight against caste discrimination.

The Employer-Worker Relationship

Even today, there are many feudal elements in the modern relationship between the employer and the domestic worker in India. Older generations accept this status quo, however, younger workers are demanding more professional and contractual employment. They are more aspirational and will impact the sector in a big way. Domestic workers are part of the informal economy, which forms 93 percent of India’s workforce. And for most people in the informal economy, as labour sociologists like Jan Breman have pointed out, the transition from a feudal set of arrangements in the village to new forms of contractual work, has thrown them from the frying pan into the fire in some ways.

As Amita explains, in the feudal system people were humiliated and crushed, but there was a belief that your patron or yajman would take care of you in bad times. Today, the working class has to find their own jobs, but the relationships of trust and security between employer and employee does not exist anymore. This leaves workers in a position of having to bargain, even though they have little bargaining power and no social capital. Unfortunately, this is going to increase due to the pandemic. The economy has plunged into confusion and many are going to be out of jobs and therefore less bargaining power.

This is a time where laws protecting workers are crucial. Even though domestic workers are in the informal sector, they do form communities and work in solidarity, to complain against abuse or unfairness. As Geeta says, one way employers can begin to be a part of these solidarities is by understanding the long history of injustice these workers have faced, and thinking about what they can do now. For example, employers should not use this virus as an excuse to not pay workers, even if they have had their own salaries cut back. There are always compromises and negotiations that can be made.

We need to treat domestic workers with dignity and learn to use language that increases their agency. The reason we take pride in our work is because that work is rewarding for us, we are paid well and respected. If we can make domestic work equally well paid and a source of dignity and pride, then people would do the work as well as they could possibly do it. We need to consider how we like to be treated in our workplaces, and whether we can use that lens to help our domestic workers.

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