In recent years, India has seen a wide-ranging retrenchment of hard-won labour rights with serious consequences for working communities in general, and for the rights of women workers. This has only worsened since the onset of the global pandemic and the imposition of stringent lockdowns across the country.

The mask of the pandemic

Under the cover of the pandemic, and in the name of reviving growth and the economy, the government sought to make deeper incursions into labour rights, even as communities on the margins experienced devastating losses of livelihoods and incomes and increased levels of hunger and indebtedness.

For feminised sectors of employment such as paid domestic work, the loss in employment has been particularly harsh – a report by ActionAid India found that 85 per cent of women domestic workers surveyed lost their livelihoods during the lockdown. The findings on the devastating effects of the loss in livelihoods on domestic workers’ lives in terms of food and housing insecurity, increased indebtedness, the attendant indirect impacts on their health and education in the face of inadequate safety nets and increased burdens of care during the periods of lockdown are replicated in several studies.

The loss of livelihoods continues to remain rife in the sector even after the periods of lockdown eased across the country, with reports suggesting that the primary reason for the loss in livelihoods is that domestic workers are perceived as potential carriers of the virus.  Where domestic workers have returned to work, they have suffered heavy losses in wages, and a reduction in the number of employers. They have also had to face the arbitrary diktats of Resident Welfare Associations and discriminatory practices in the name of ‘social distancing’, which have entrenched existing hierarchies enabled by caste practices.

The systemic roots of discrimination

The precarities experienced by domestic workers under conditions of lockdown have deeper systemic roots – they lie in the liberalisation-led agrarian crisis, which has resulted in the unprecedented eviction of women from the rural workforce, even as there has been an increase in women’s employment in the undervalued and low-paid sector of domestic work. Domestic work is also mainly performed by marginalised groups of women – it is a largely migrant workforce, there is a preponderance of Dalit women in domestic work, and most domestic workers are women who have not completed a primary education.

This combination of factors has led to the devaluation and persistently inadequate recognition of domestic work as work in society and in law. Under labour law, domestic workers are not fully rights bearers; barring a few aspects of domestic work, such as on minimum wages in some states, social security provisioning, and sexual harassment at the workplace, the sector has largely been left outside the purview of labour laws.

Countering the systemic roots that devalue domestic work

Where there have been positive changes to the law, much of it is a testament to the persistent organisation of domestic workers. Domestic workers have been organising since the 80s and 90s, and there has been an increased momentum in this mobilisation since the 2000s, and especially post the adoption of ILO Convention C189 in 2011. In 2012, domestic worker organisations from several states across the country formed the National Platform for Domestic Workers with the rallying cry to recognise domestic workers as workers through the enactment of a separate law on domestic work.

The recent labour law reform process which led to the enactment of four Codes on Wages, Social Security, Industrial Relations, and Occupational Health and Safety and Working Conditions, provided a singular opportunity to extend labour rights to domestic workers (as well as other workers in the informal sector). However, it proved to be not just hopelessly inadequate in addressing the rights of domestic workers, it further retrenched hard-won labour rights on unionisation, on the right to strike on flexible working and so on, including on minimum wages for domestic workers.

The loss of livelihoods engendered by the lockdowns has had devastating impacts on the lives of women domestic workers pointing to the precarities that structure their lives. We need to attend to the deeper systemic roots that devalue the domestic work and address the persistent non-recognition of the rights of domestic workers that have only been made more acute in the face of the wider retrenchment of labour rights in the country.

In the face of the crisis of survival faced by domestic workers, we have an urgent call to action. It is imperative that we find ways to amplify the voices of domestic workers and support domestic worker groups as they employ various legal, discursive, and organising strategies to claim their rights as workers.

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