COVID-19 has killed thousands, and infected millions of people till now. In India, such cases are increasing daily at an alarming rate as well. This pandemic has affected every aspect of life all across the world. According to the Lancet report, 2020, no policies or public health efforts have addressed the gendered impact of any disease outbreaks in the past.
The effects of the pandemic on the informal sector in India have been witnessed-through the plight of the migrant workers, but one group that is often ignored is the domestic workers. While official statistics state that India has 4.75 million domestic workers, out of which 3 million are women, this is considered an extreme underestimation-the true number could be anywhere between 20 to 80 million workers (ILO). As we can see, more than two-thirds of those working in this profession are women- most of whom come from regions such as Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam (Lahiri, Maid in India, 2017).
During this pandemic, a lot of such women are facing the risk of unemployment. Many households are either not paying their domestic help their full salary, or are discharging them- leaving them unemployed. Their fear for health, along with reduced employment due to the lockdown, stress as well as inability to provide for financial needs during the period of lockdown has negatively affected their lives and livelihoods in a myriad ways.
Thus, I carried out a survey, via google forms, which was filled by various women who worked at different houses, across Kolkata. The survey addressed the gender-based problems which are being faced by the Indian society during this pandemic- more specifically, the female domestic help in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. The respondents were from different parts of the city and were permanent residents of Kolkata. We received 54 responses for the survey.
The questions addressed specific details about the difference in their salary, in the month of February, before the lockdown was imposed, as compared to the months during the lockdown. They were also asked how COVID-19 affected their mental health, jobs, housework and if they received any aid from the central or state governments, and how effective that relief was.
Upon asking them whether they were the sole breadwinners in their family, while the rest said they weren’t, an overwhelming 48% were. From further questioning them on the number of people in their family who are wholly dependent on their salaries, I found that it was primarily (65%) between 3-5 members of the family.
I found that the pandemic had negatively affected the salary of the majority (52%) of the respondents, while the rest claimed not to be financially impacted. In order to assess the range of this negative impact, I asked them the amount they earned during the month of February, before lockdown was imposed in all of India. An almost 50% decrease is noticed in the graph attached below. This shows us that most families decided to either not pay, or pay their domestic help half their original salary during the times they needed it the most.
On questioning whether the central or state governments had assisted them and if yes, in what form, the following were the responses.
Apart from the financial burden that this pandemic has brought upon our domestic help, their livelihood has been adversely affected. Things that were fairly simple before- like cooking a meal, or having electricity in their house, and even paying rent has become harder. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the worst situation and 10 being pre-covid-19 situation- Paying rent, (6.35/10), was not as negatively affected as compared to paying for food (5.87/10) and other essential commodities (5.74/10).
Due to gender societal roles, women in India, are always expected to do most of the unpaid labour in their households. With everyone at home and increased measures of precaution being undertaken, I had thought that their household work would be greatly impacted. 1 being household chores increased, and 10 being the pre-covid-19 situation – the average was 6.11/10. Around 60 % did not believe that their housework had increased manifold (1-5) and the majority had rated their work load above a 5- which was a very unexpected response. This goes to show us that even before the pandemic, female domestic workers had to shoulder a huge burden of household work by themselves.
Upon addressing the impact of the pandemic on almost all aspects of life- livelihood, standard of living, economic burdens- a very important aspect was the mental health of the respondents. An overwhelming majority respondents felt, and still continue to feel, more stressed during this pandemic. This stress could be caused due to a variety of reasons connected to the pandemic- the fear of uncertainty of the future, whether they will get their jobs back, whether most shall be able to provide for their families and whether the government will continue to provide aid.
In conclusion, we see that the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely negatively impacted the female domestic workers in several different ways. Their household workload has increased, while a sudden cut in their salary has made it harder for them to maintain their standard of living- making even essential commodities such as food, electricity and gas harder for them to pay for- the stress of which has led to worsening of their mental health.
As the famous saying goes- ‘Charity begins at home’. We must try to help them out in whichever little way we can- whether it is paying them their full salary, even during this pandemic, or providing them with meals, and other essential commodities such as masks, soap and more.
The author is Student, Class XII, La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata, India
With inputs from: Professor Kanika Mahajan, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Ashoka University, Sonepat, India
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