Legal Protection for Domestic Workers in COVID-19 Pandemic Times in India: Employers' Perspectives.

AuthorGhatak, Amrita


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly severe adverse impact on domestic workers around the world. As the number of cases and fear of contagion spread, so did the confinement measures. To facilitate physical distancing, most countries adopted either full or partial lockdown measures to prevent transmission. As one of the primary measures toward prevention of the COVID-19, the Government of India had announced complete shutdown of the economy on March 24, 2020 continued in various phases of locking and unlocking the economy leading to complete or partial restrictions on public movements.

Along with many occupations in the unorganized or unsecured workspace one group that was worst affected by the health-economic crisis, has been that of the domestic workers. In general, this sector is already characterized by no written contract, no conventional method of wage determination, multiple household employers, absence of social security, limited government intervention, a distress livelihood option, and lack of decent work environment. The lockdown measures and subsequent economic crisis have further intensified and magnified their vulnerabilities. While domestic workers have suffered many kinds of setbacks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the main consequences of it has been a reduction of working hours and, in some cases, loss of jobs, resulting from fear and restricted mobility associated with confinement measures.

As the lockdown was enforced across the nation, many resident welfare associations (RWAs) and households of domestic employers exercised absolute discretion in restricting the entry (and mobility) of domestic workers in (urban) residential colonies and apartments. This made many workers lose out on day-today work with very few receiving any cash (or kind) support from their respective employers (Ghosh, 2020; Ghatak & Sarkar, 2020).

Given this scenario, this paper examines how employers perceive domestic workers and how those perceptions influence the status of employment, wages and working conditions as well as the employer-employee relationships during the weeks of a curfew-style lockdown and in the 'new normal' state post lockdown phase as unlocking process began in India. It focuses on the demand-side aspects of domestic labor market empirically, assuming there exists a huge reserve army of domestic labor-force. The objectives are to: a) understand employers' perceptions of domestic workers; b) assess the status of employment, working conditions and wages during the pandemic; and c) explore the nature of employer-employee relationship and domestic workers' dignity post lockdown period. Thus, it not only addresses the attitude, perceptions and views of employers of domestic workers, but also attempts to understand the actual employment practices and the nature of employment relationships during the pandemic.

The Domestic Workspace

Although women's participation in different paid jobs can be traced back to 20th century, the options for them were limited because of their systemic deprivation from required education. While in the 20th century only very few women from the upper castes and classes had the opportunity for paid out-side work, gradually more and more women entered into the employment sector giving rise to the need for a supporting hand to work inside the home. Due to lack of education, economic resources and other opportunities women from disadvantaged castes have limited options to compete with the male counterparts in the outside paid job market preferred to enter into the domain of domestic work. Now, it is accepted as an important category of livelihood option for many women particularly from the lower socioeconomic groups. Domestic service remains a highly personalized and informal service delivered in the homes of employers (Chandramauli & Kodandaram, 2018).

Economic liberalization and urbanization process brought a drastic change in the life-style of the people impacting on gender relations and gender roles transforming the 'feudal relationship' of domestic servants/laborers in the colonial period to the 'madam-maid' relationship in the post-modern times. The process of urbanization witnessed the emergence of the middle class wherein both husband and wife participated in the labor market. Joint family system in urban areas declined and nuclear families needed domestic help from outside. Also, decline of agrarian economy compelled many rural people to migrate to urban areas in search of livelihood and women to become domestic workers. Many domestic workers in urban areas are migrants, particularly from tribal or underprivileged areas. In India, 78.4 per cent of urban women workers are in the informal economy and about 9.4 per cent are domestic workers (Wiego, 2020). The count of women entering the 'domestic workspace' has risen by 120 per cent although they remain outside the ambit of social security and legal protection.

Legislative Protection

Domestic workers are often left out of labor protection laws and social security because they are historically perceived as a manual form of labor, expected to be given for free by women in private households. They are left out of relief or assistance plans and thus facing multiple vulnerabilities. Having no recognition as a 'productive work' they are devalued, unnoticed, and under paid. The domestic workers in India are employed mostly through informal and are outside the scope of existing social security schemes run by the government.

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 laborers. 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.

Although 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, it vaguely defined 'domestic work' as any work ranging from cleaning, cooking, caring for a child to nursing sick and old people. They could be classified 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.

Attempts have been made by public representatives, civil society organizations and Domestic Workers' Unions to have a comprehensive protective legislation for domestic workers in place. 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. But, a comprehensive legislation for domestic workers is still awaited. Central government was also in the process of formulating a national policy on domestic workers. Draft was made and discussed as part of social dialogue with no concrete policy prescription emerged from the exercise yet.

Methodology & Sampling Design

The paper builds arguments based on data collected through a structured interview schedule canvassed online with the help of Google form among 131 employers of domestic workers from various parts of Ahmedabad and Kolkata cities during the period from September to December in 2020. Following a multistage stratified sampling the survey...

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