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Care & Compassion

Care & Compassion

That the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has literally turned the globe upside down is no exaggeration. In terms of its disruption, there are no words to describe the economic and social impact.

In India, imposition of the national lockdown along with compulsory wearing of masks and social distancing measures to limit the outbreak was a necessity. However, more commendable is the slew of massive special financial packages including the economic package (equivalent to 10% of our gross domestic product) announced by the Central Government.

The work from home option provided to several employees of government organisations and private establishments in the formal sector to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is judicious. Nonetheless, the cause for concern is that tens of thousands of daily wage earners and self-employed have lost their jobs and the opportunity to earn their livelihood.

Especially, will life be the same again for the disproportionately affected women and migrant workers? A couple of days back the media reported the sordid real life predicament of a 38-year-old woman. She lost her housemaid job after the national lockdown was announced this March. Her meagre savings too dried up no sooner the second phase of lockdown commenced. Left with no other way, she was forced to beg for food in the very residential colony where she once worked in order to feed her three children and a sick husband. 

Another former domestic help now without a job reportedly walks around 8 km daily seeking help to manage two square meals for her children and jobless husband. 

The local authorities have distributed over 1.5 lakh food packages besides wheat and pulses to a large number of beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana in that area.

The erstwhile Minimum Wages Act, 1948 meant to provide minimum rates of wages in certain employments (now repealed and replaced by the Code on Wages, 2019) had set a ‘living wage’ considered necessary for a worker to afford a basic standard of living which includes good health, dignity, comfort and education. The norms for fixation/revision of minimum wages considered (i) 3 consumption units for one earner. (ii) Minimum food requirements of 2700 calories per average Indian adult. (iii) Clothing requirements of 72 yards per annum per family. (iv) Rent corresponding to the minimum area provided for under Government’s Industrial Housing Scheme. (v) Fuel, lighting and other miscellaneous items of expenditure to constitute 20% of the total Minimum Wages.(vi) Children education, medical requirement, minimum recreation including festivals/ceremonies and provision for old age, marriage etc. should further constitute 25% of the total minimum wage. 

Under the Code on Wages, 2019, the central government will fix a floor wage, taking into account living standards of workers. Further, it may set different floor wages for different geographical areas.  Before fixing the floor wage, the central government may obtain the advice of the Central Advisory Board and may consult with state governments. The minimum wages decided by the central or state governments must be higher than the floor wage. In case the existing minimum wages fixed by the central or state governments are higher than the floor wage, they cannot reduce the minimum wages. 

Presently the minimum wages, depending on a particular State varies between Rs 178 to Rs 327 per day for an unskilled worker. 

In the meanwhile a Government appointed expert committee has proposed a national level minimum wage for a worker at Rs 9750 per month for 26 days of work which works out to Rs 375 per day.

Now why all these calculations on wages? 

Well, this applies to an unskilled worker employed in scheduled employments. But unfortunately, domestic labour or housemaids who also can be taken into the unskilled worker category are not covered under any law for payment of minimum wages for their labour although some state governments have notified a minimum guaranteed wage. 

Although no data regarding the number of persons employed as domestic workers or housemaids are maintained at central level, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation statistics (2011-12) an estimated 3.9 million persons are employed by private households of which 1.3 million are male and 2.6 million are female workers.

Whether educated upto class 10 or illiterate, house maids not only perform a plethora of jobs but they are part and parcel of family. Some work as cooks while others perform cleaning and other jobs. Many employers offer tea with Tiffin or even meals while others seldom offer anything. At times, the left-over food offered to them are stale or even rotten and unfit for human consumption. It is rather appalling that for some maids, their religion and caste either facilitates or hinders in securing jobs. Some employers are so broad minded but others are so stingy when it comes to giving even a day off to house maids and some expect them to attend to work even if they are unwell or have some other pressing commitments. Some unsuspecting house maids are exploited by unscrupulous manpower agencies but yet they toil to make both ends meet. Many house maids are largely patronised by students who are said to pay them quite generously.  

How much does a domestic help earn in a month? Much depends on the place of work. In metro cities, a house maid roughly earns about Rs 800/ to Rs 1000-(minimum) for one job which can either be dishwashing or sweep and swop. Typically housemaids work in 4 or 5 houses maximum depending on their ability to manage the tasks and age. A package rate is also charged by some maids and among others it depends on the area/locality, size of the house, types of work to be performed, number of family members including children and elderly people.

So what happens to domestic helps when they are unemployed like in the prevailing situation arising out the global COVID-19 pandemic?

Even though there is no specific law for domestic workers, the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 is intended to provide social security to all unorganised workers including domestic helps. 

The legislation provides for the formulation of social security schemes viz. life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits and old age protection by the Central Government. 

State Government's are mandated under the said Act to draw up suitable welfare schemes for the unorganized sector workers including domestic workers relating to provident fund, employment injury benefits, housing, education schemes for children, skill up gradation of workers, financial assistance and old age homes. 

The Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Mandhan Yojana, in vogue since last February, primarily meant for unorganized workers like street vendors, rag pickers, domestic workers etc., is designed to provide them an assured pension. A member has to make a monthly age-specific contribution ranging from Rs 55/- to Rs 200/- only to receive a month minimum pension of Rs 3000/- per month under this scheme after attaining the age of 60 years.

Rules apart, let's for a moment see how a few home maids are coping with the situation arising out of COVID-19 lockdown. 

35-year-old Sarla (all names changed) is thankful to all her four employers who paid her full wages for March and April, although she actually worked only for 20 days. 

26-year-old Rakesh is yet to receive any wages for March from her three employers as she is away at her village. 

29-year-old Monica received her full wages for last two months through PayTm. She eagerly waits for the colleges to open as she cooks and cleans in three houses where students reside. 

Beauty (25) has been paid full wages for past two months along with 5 kgs of Atta and 5 Kgs of rice, but she mainly misses her Madam’s tea, breakfast and gossip! 

45-year-old Naseem who is unwell and has not gone for work even before the lockdown is worried if she will be able to retain her job. 

Forced to be all day long with her abusive jobless husband, Kaushalya (50) hopes that the lockdown is soon lifted and she will be able to attend her routine housemaid jobs.

As responsible citizens, hopefully we can look upon the ubiquitous helping hands with a little care and compassion at this hour of unprecedented crisis. 

It needs to be appreciated domestic helps also are human beings and need our support because they too have a family to look after.

(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)