Physical distancing is still advised, but that doesn't mean you should behave badly with the domestic worker.

A domestic help or maid washing utensilsImage for representation. Raja Stills/Picxy
Coronavirus Labour rights Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 17:59

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped India, one of the worst affected sections in society have been domestic workers. Not only did lakhs lose their livelihood without warning due to the nationwide lockdown, but even when restrictions eased, many haven't been able to return to their jobs because physical distancing is still advised.

For those who have been permitted to return to work, discriminatory policies have followed in many places, with domestic workers not being allowed to use the lifts in buildings or to sit in common areas.

Much of this is premised on the casteist and classist notions that domestic workers are ‘dirty’ and could infect the employers, when in reality, employers are as likely to carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Even so, the fear of infection is very real, especially in places like Chennai and Mumbai which have a high number of COVID-19 patients. TNM asked civil society workers, who offered the following actionable solutions to be considerate towards domestic workers at this time.

An attitude change

Geeta Menon, founder of Stree Jaguthi Samiti in Karnataka, who also helped set up the Domestic Workers Rights Union in the state, found in a recent survey that 80% of domestic workers in Karnataka had been told to not come to work for June and July, because the employers believe they “carry the virus”.

“There needs to be an attitudinal change. The fear of infection is valid, but this isn’t a fight between us and them (domestic workers). The disease affects everyone. In fact, if your domestic worker gets it, she is at a bigger disadvantage due to lack of access to healthcare services compared to you,” Geeta points out. “You have to see them and treat them as you would like your employer to treat you.”

If your domestic worker has returned to her job, it's necessary to speak to her with respect and empathy. 

Varsha Bhargavi, a child and labour rights activist in Telangana, adds, “This is especially for people who cannot do without domestic workers’ services. Talk to them kindly, educate them about physical distancing, provide them with masks, gloves etc so that they aren’t just safe while working at your home, but also when they go out and are in their own homes.”

Wages and compensation

Geeta says that one problem domestic workers are facing is that they have been left hanging by employers: “They have just been told to not come for two months, or that the employers will call them back when it’s safe. The employers need to give some compensation for the time they aren’t calling them for work as surety, even if they can’t afford to pay full salary because of their own job loss or pay cuts. Communicate with the worker, for if she has clarity, she will look for another job.”

Geeta adds that people should not be cutting the workers’ wages even if they are reducing the work. “If you feel very unsafe and do not want her to cut vegetables in your kitchen for you, you can’t be cutting her salary for that at this point. Employers should also give the workers some freedom – don’t hound her to wash her hands constantly. They are as scared as you. Even when she cleans and dusts your house, she knows she has to wash her hands. Educate them, but allow them some trust and freedom. If you have to enforce physical distancing at home, say so kindly and properly, without making them feel like lesser people.”

Even those who tell the workers to not come for work have some responsibility towards them, activists say. Shanthana Mari, the Chennai coordinator of Penn Thozhilargal Sangam, a union of domestic workers, agrees. “Employers should also give us gloves and masks so that we can go and work safely. Even if they tell us to not come back to work yet, they should at least pay salaries, because domestic workers haven’t quit the job," she points out.

Beyond wages

Varsha says that beyond wages, employers should also ask about the nutritional intake of their domestic workers. “Ask about her health and that of her family. Make sure they have access to nutritious supplies – not just rice, but also dal and basic vegetables and oil as well.”

It is also important to have these conversations with loved ones to sensitise them, Varsha adds. “Social media can also be effective in starting a discussion, though it is not usually action oriented unless you have a political or influential backing.”

Activists say that more than anything, the government needs to step up to ensure that domestic workers are under the social security ambit, those eligible among them are given pension, have access to ration regardless of whether they have a ration card and are able to access healthcare services at Public Healthcare Centres (PHCs) to be able to tide over the pandemic. 

(With inputs from Bharathi SP)

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