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Domestic Workers: Labour Taken for Granted

Domestic work is associated with a particular gender. It has been underappreciated and often noticed in its absence. When domestic labour is called a “woman’s job” its monetary value is minimal and underestimated.

The smooth functioning of an urban household requires a regular contribution of the domestic worker(s). Since the kind of work they perform requires minimal intellectual skill like cleaning, laundry, sweeping, cleaning utensils, running errands and caretaking, it is considered as “informal”. Their service is regarded as “domestic help” and workers are called “maids, servants, helpers”.

Furthermore, this workforce involves women from lower income groups. Tamizh Selvis alias Jaya says, “I have to work for my children. My husband works too but due to Covid we are in need of more money than before.” She began working only in 2020. She has a financial obligation to fulfil just like most women of this strata.

Workers, Employers and State

Due to the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 most workers were struggling to survive with irregular salaries. They had limited access to health care, food and basic amenities. Female domestic workers were also vulnerable to violence and abuse at employers’ and their own homes.

Also, women who migrate from tribal and rural areas were forced to return to their places due to lack of housing.

As most employers are private households, it is easier to lay workers off and evade responsibilities. The disregard of middle class households towards domestic workers is astonishing. While there were donations and grants for funds for the pandemic, the accountability was evaded by the state and the employers.

The domestic workforce constitutes around 20 million workers and yet it is an unorganised sector. Hence, it further complicates the implementation of National Schemes. The Supreme Court’s judgement on migrant workers encompasses the hunger predicament. However, domestic workers require a Comprehensive Legislation. Their demands should be considered from a gender sensitive prism. Most domestic workers lack legal literacy and are unaware of their rights. Their needs and demands are often dealt with welfare schemes and donations from the employers. These donations are considered as “charity” to the poor. What these workers require is empowerment, skill based development and dignity of labour.

While white collar jobs are viewed as “respectable” and associated with upper caste workers, blue collar jobs are diminished as “menial work”. The Indian society also involves caste dynamics where one caste is explicitly labelled for their work. It is regressive and insensitive. It perpetuates caste hegemony. Due to the informal tone, there is little empathy towards these women. Jaya says with no hesitation, “ This is like our house, the other employer is not as considerate as bhabhi, even when I am recuperating from an injury…”

“The Caretaking Chain”

Female workers from urban, upscale areas are expected to adhere to domestic gender norms. They require caretakers and domestic workers to substitute for them. This creates a demand for female caretakers in urban households and results in migration of women from rural areas. The job requires minimal education and demands behavioural qualities like “motherly, docile, flexible and obliging” which is a stereotypical representation of domestic caretakers, nannies and cooks.

There is also a global shift in domestic caretaking. Women from the Global South are actively engaging in domestic work in the West and the Gulf. South Asian domestic caretakers are also vulnerable to violence, harassment and abuse from employers. These migrant workers are denied resources like paid leave, medical insurance, social security and housing. Here, workers find themselves distressed as they are away from their families. These workers also lack literacy and find it difficult to communicate to avail services.

The laws in place for the provisions of migrant workers need to be educated to both parties. The lack of empowerment of these workers prevents them from communicating clearly, they are often susceptible to distressing circumstances. However, these laws don’t encompass the unpredictability of the pandemic. There were many workers who were deported to India and were uncertain of their future. Some were also not paid properly. Their return to work still remains a cause for the host nation. Further, it reiterates that laws governing migrant labour need strategic international partnership and extensive care for women who trade the security of their homes for work.

Shreya Sharma is currently pursuing B. A. English Literature from Stella Maris College, Chennai. She likes to engage in subaltern studies and gender ideology. She likes reading, writing, debating and public speaking. Currently, she works as an Intern with Kanyaka Foundation.


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