Out-of-job domestic workers are struggling for survival even as lockdown is relaxedUp to 85 percent of domestic workers lost their jobs during the lockdown—and now there is no safety net for them.
Laxmi was working as a domestic help for three families to support her own family of four before the government enforced a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Soon after the lockdown was put in place, Laxmi found herself out of work. “The families who employed me asked me not to come to work out of the fear of the coronavirus infection,” Laxmi said.
Though one of Laxmi’s employers eventually called her back to work, the wage she is earning now is not enough for her to look after her family.
“I work for one family now and they have even provided me with a place to stay. The rent is covered by my work as a domestic help, but it’s difficult to take care of my other personal and family needs after losing the other two jobs.”
Things have become particularly hard for Laxmi because her husband also lost her job during the lockdown. The couple has two schoolgoing children.
Like Laxmi, Tara also lost her job as a domestic worker during the lockdown. She, too, worked for three families in Lalitpur until the lockdown was enforced on March 24.
With no family savings and her husband, a construction labourer, out of job, Tara’s family has been struggling to make ends meet these days.
After the country went into the lockdown, all non-essential services and activities were suspended. Shops and businesses were closed and the people were not allowed outside, except in case of emergencies.
The ramifications of the Covid-19 lockdown was felt across all sectors of the economy. Thousands of people involved in both the formal and informal work sectors either lost their jobs, suffered pay cuts or were forced to stay on leave by their employers.
With the public movement blocked and physical distancing becoming the norm to protect oneself from the risk of catching the coronavirus, a majority of the people working as domestic help lost their jobs.
According to Gyanu KC, an executive member of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, more than 85 percent of the workers who provided domestic help services lost their jobs during the lockdown.
“The pandemic was an unexpected situation for all the domestic workers. Our rapid study has shown that more than 85 percent of the domestic workers are now unemployed,” said KC, who is also the general secretary of the Home Workers’ Trade Union of Nepal, a sister wing of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).
According to Nepal Labour Survey (2017-18), nearly 73,000 Nepalis are employed as domestic help by private households. Nearly two-thirds of them are women.
Domestic workers, who are mostly women, either work as live-in workers, meaning they work and stay in their employers’ houses, or work several jobs like Laxmi and Tara and live separately with their own families.
KC said domestic workers suffered more also because most of their wages are spent on food, rent and schooling of their children, leaving little to nothing for savings.
She added the relief materials distributed by the government also could not reach many domestic workers, who are mostly single women living in rented rooms or in squatter settlements.
“By the second week of the lockdown, most of them had run out of money and food. For getting government relief, they needed a recommendation from their landlords, who were not ready to do so. Many workers also faced rent hikes during the lockdown,” said KC. “Meanwhile, those living in squatters could not claim the relief items. As a result, many of them walked hundreds of kilometres to return to their hometowns.”
During an interaction organised by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) Nepal to discuss impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic workers in the country, domestic workers, labour rights activists and labour leaders stressed the need of helping household workers to cope with the adverse effects of the pandemic.
“In Nepal, a large number of workers are employed in the informal sector, where labour laws are not implemented. When you have workers in such a situation, then we can see the impact of Covid-19 situation much much higher,” said Richard Howard, director of the ILO Country Office for Nepal. “They have faced salary cuts or not been paid or could not reach the workplace due to the lockdown. The Covid-19 situation shows that we must take care of those vulnerable workers."
According to the participants of the interaction, the government should change its lens of seeing only construction workers as informal sector workers and pay attention to and give due recognition to domestic workers as well.
Makhamala Pathak, a domestic worker and a trade union leader associated with the GEFONT, said even after the lockdown has been relaxed, many domestic workers were still out of work and without money.
“A large number of domestic workers are also single women and the sole breadwinner for the families. They are still waiting for their salaries as the lockdown was announced without any warning,” said Pathak. “These workers are going through financial and psychological pressure. If only they were formally registered and their minimum wage were fixed, they would not have to go through a lot of hardship.”
Labour leaders and rights activists have proposed that domestic workers should be registered with their respective local government offices and the government should come up with a special relief package for domestic workers, as there is no sign of them returning to work anytime soon.
They have also recommended teaching new skills so that out-of-job domestic workers can make some income.
“There has been a dilemma regarding the payment of domestic workers. As domestic workers have not worked during the lockdown, their employers might not be ready to pay them,” said Prashant Dangol, a representative of domestic workers placement agencies. Because this is an extraordinary situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to come up with a modality regarding domestic workers work and their remunerations.”