Coping with COVID-19: SEWA’s Domestic Workers on the Pandemic and Beyond

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Domestic worker in Ranchi, India
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Yola Verbruggen


For years, Pratima, a domestic worker, has been cooking for several families in Delhi. When the coronavirus started to spread and restrictions on movement were introduced across the country, housing complexes and gated communities banned the entry of domestic workers. Today, even as the lockdown has been gradually lifted in India, Pratima is one of many domestic workers who continues to struggle. 

Many domestic workers have not been able to return to work because employers no longer want the workers in their house, fearing they would spread the disease. Pratima is finally back at work, but only partially. There has been a big change in the attitude of her employers—where she used to be welcomed, she is now seen as a potential carrier of the virus and is sprayed with disinfectant all over before being allowed to enter the house. Pratima doesn’t like it and her skin itches all the time but, if she wants to feed her family, it’s the only way. 

Pratima shared her experiences with other workers in a recent WIEGO Workers’ Voices webinar, organized by Focal City Delhi in association with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). SEWA is a trade union registered in 1972 in India and has women members in 13 states in India. Pratima together with Nirmala, who is also a domestic worker in India, spoke about the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on their work, the difficulties they have faced until now and the support they have received, including from SEWA.

In India, 78.4 per cent of urban women workers are in the informal economy and about 9.4 per cent are domestic workers. 

Pratima lives in Delhi and she works as a domestic worker in four different homes. She provides for her son, mother and brother, who live with her. For three months, during lockdown, Pratima didn’t work at all. Together with other workers, she stood outside housing gates to collect her earnings. While two families continued to pay her, another only paid her half, and the fourth stopped paying her altogether. 

“For those three months, life was very difficult. Whatever we earn, we use to run our household so, when lockdown started, we had no savings”—Pratima

Nirmala, who lives in Kerala, also says the lockdown was hard. Most domestic workers in Kerala use public transport to travel to work but, as the crisis unfolded, families thought this way of commuting increased the chance of infection, and they closed the door to their workers. Nirmala lost her job and her pay ended abruptly. By April, only those domestic workers with their own means of transportation were still able to go to work, provided they had a consent letter from the government. 

“Many people lost their jobs and had financial problems. Emotionally, we were very distressed because of the job loss and the fear of health problems associated with COVID-19.”—Nirmala

Where the government failed to help effectively, SEWA stepped in. Many workers told SEWA that they were not able to access the government scheme for food relief—some didn’t have the right documents to be considered eligible, while others said they applied but never heard back. SEWA facilitated access to government schemes of provision of food and ration, wherever possible. In addition, SEWA provided food rations to the most vulnerable workers, who were not receiving or were unable to access government support. 

In Delhi, India’s capital city with a population of over 18 million, the majority of workers are migrant workers. Without the right documents, these workers cannot access social security or relief during the pandemic and are more vulnerable than ever. “This was the biggest issue and the first problem we focused on. We provided 35.000 households with rations during the pandemic,” says Aditi from SEWA Delhi. In Kerala, a more supportive local government provided free rations to everyone who needed it and set up community kitchens.

To provide emotional support for those who lost their jobs, as well as those facing increased tensions at home, SEWA is keeping in touch with their members and links them up with health care workers if needed. SEWA also campaigned for cash transfers, to ease the burden on vulnerable families. In Kerala, the welfare board for unorganized workers provided members with a 1000 INR one-off payment. Advocacy from SEWA contributed to the board’s decision to also award this payment to past, lapsed members, explains Shina of SEWA Kerala. 

The continued fear of infection by employers is keeping domestic workers out of a job, and SEWA is taking steps to address this. On International Domestic Workers' Day on June 16—which marks the anniversary of the International Labour Organisation's Convention 189 on the rights of domestic workers—SEWA Kerala launched their ‘My Fair Home’ campaign. Its aim is to destigmatize domestic workers as spreaders of the disease. With a small group of workers, they stood at entrances of residences with banners and brochures while, at same time, they raised awareness about hygiene among SEWA’s membership. 

Things are going to be difficult for some time to come for domestic workers in India, as Pratima and Nirmala explain. Pratima still works only in two homes, instead of the four she worked in before the pandemic. “Some employers ask us to do work outside the house or to go buy vegetables. We are at greater risk of infection while going out. Our hands and feet itch all the time from all the sanitizing we have to do every time we enter the house,” she says. Her mother, who is also a domestic worker, has not been able to resume work yet. As a result, their overall household income has been cut in half. To eat, they receive basic rations such as oil, pulses, flour, rice and spices from SEWA and also on loan from a shop.

Nirmala says that domestic workers in Kerala are largely still unemployed. For those who did return to work, their employers treat them as carriers of infection and ask them to bath and wash a lot. Nirmala is trying to connect to the government’s urban employment guarantee scheme in Kerala. 

Photo credit: ILO Work in Freedom Programme: Ranchi, 2015

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group