MAY 25, 2021
ONE MORNING IN the last week of November, our cook broke down. Citing the loss of her husband’s job, she said she was going to take up a full-time house-help opportunity for a family of six. Employing a cook to help or support the kitchen work is fairly common in middle-class Indian households. It’s timed work, limited to the kitchen and sometimes cleaning the utensils afterward. During my four years in Delhi, when I started making enough to be able to afford help, I have employed four astutely professional women. All of them came from families where their income was not necessary. Instead, they worked as cooks because they liked cooking. Their husbands held private or public sector jobs, most of them had at least one two-wheeler in their house and lived in joint families. With the pandemic, all this changed. Suddenly these women became primary breadwinners, pushing them to double up and take on more work.
In the case of our cook, her highly diabetic husband was rendered jobless in April 2020. While she tried to support and run the household on her own, their landlord had taken away their kitchen and household appliances when they had fallen behind on rent. Now, with no hope of a new job for her husband, she was being pushed to take up a job where she did not know the time limits, where the nature of work was different, and where she would end up spreading herself thin physically and mentally.
Earlier she had not minded taking up a job for INR 300–500 less, but with the pandemic she was forced to push her limits and ask for more. Generally shy and reserved, when we suggested she go door-to-door asking for a job in our neighborhood, she said it was beyond her social prestige to resort to those means. Self-reliant and highly emancipated, she was now being forced to take up a job that was beyond her current skill set.
The pandemic in India, now with a massive resurgence of cases, highlighted preexisting social and economic disparities. While we struggled to work from home and cope with our various malaises, the people who worked for us suffered worse. As the pandemic lingered and then exploded, it became increasingly clear that it was women across all sectors who were disproportionately affected. The situation was dire in similar ways in many parts of the United States. According to a paper published by American sociologist Jessica Calarco, “Let’s Pretend It’s Not Fun,” in the US, among the mothers who had to greatly increase time they were spending with their children, 77 percent reported experiencing more stress during the pandemic, 69 percent reported experiencing more anxiety, and 41 percent reported experiencing more frustrations with their kids.
In late September, after strict lockdown restrictions were lifted in Delhi, I asked our cleaning lady and cook to come back to work. The cleaning lady requested we start paying her in cash again, because although we were wiring her a monthly salary, it had seldom reached her. Her son, on whose number we wired the sum, had ended up spending some or most of the money on himself. Something similar happened with our cook. She did not have a bank account of her own, and with the lockdown restrictions, had to resort to borrowing someone else’s bank account number. We wired her the money at the beginning of every month, but as with the cleaning lady, it rarely reached her. One of my friend’s cooks was also unable to account for the salaries she was being wired by the few houses that continued to pay her. She said she did not know how or where to look on her mobile app to understand if the money had actually reached her or not.
Historically women have paid the highest price during any major economic setback, and this time, on top of the pandemic, society, technology, and the culture failed women. The pandemic made starkly evident what work and money meant to women across various classes. Our cleaning lady took up this job out of sheer necessity of funds at her home. Even before the pandemic she did not mind pushing her physical limits to make more money. Whenever in need, she found odd jobs in the neighborhood, like deep cleaning someone’s house, or helping in moving houses, or walking people’s dogs. While for the cook, the boundaries were neatly drawn. She wouldn’t do anything except cooking (in our house) and help with cooking (in others). With the pandemic, both their situations worsened.
My cook and cleaning lady are a part of India’s informal sector, which employs nearly 90 percent of the country’s labor force and is among the largest globally. Constituting a total of 96 million informal workers, these women continue to fight old pay gaps and domestic issues and new pandemic-induced troubles, while working at reduced salaries. Within this informal sector, many women put in over 12 hours a day, six days a week, and still do not have the bargaining power to demand better wages or working conditions. And the pandemic has only worsened it all.
In the first few months of India’s strict lockdowns, members of the upper- and lower-middle class also lost jobs and suffered pay cuts across industries. In India, which has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates in the world, of which only 20.4 percent are urban women (2018 Periodic Labour Force Survey, NSSO), this has been aggravated over the years by preexisting inequalities in gender roles. With the pandemic also came a sudden absence of networks that facilitated women’s participation in the workforce, on top of job losses, salary cuts, and the ever-present feelings of guilt over not doing enough.
Unable to pay rent, many women moved out of their accommodations in cities where they held jobs (Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, etc.) and back to their hometowns with parents. There, a new pressure built as families started forcing them to abandon all careerist ambitions and get married in the arranged way. As claustrophobic as this situation was, these women found themselves unable to negotiate their way out of this fix.
In the May to August 2020 duration, the labor participation rate in India for women was 9.3 percent against a 67.4 percent for men.
According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the economic setback coupled with the pandemic shrunk the already low labor participation rate for women. It now stands at a dismal 11 percent for women, against a solid 71 percent for men. While some have still managed to be in the workforce, a majority of women have suffered a much higher unemployment rate of 17 percent, compared to six percent for men.
The recovery, such as it is, has also been unequal. Women, who bear the disproportionate burden of household and care work, are being edged out of remunerative work as the few remaining jobs go to men. According to CMIE data, by November 2020 men had regained most of the jobs they had lost during the lockdowns, whereas women accounted for nearly half of the remaining job losses (49 percent of job losses were of women).
A September 2020 report by UN Women estimated the number of women in the global informal economy at 740 million. According to the report, the incomes of these women fell by 60 percent in the first month of the pandemic.
This, in turn, reflects on the perception of women’s paid as well as unpaid work in the society and economy. Before the pandemic, women spent nearly five hours every day on unpaid domestic work, compared to 98 minutes by men (according to the NSSO time-use Survey 2019 of nearly 4.5 lakh Indians). Less than six percent of Indian men were involved in cooking, compared to 75 percent of women. Indian Economist Swaminathan Aiyar prescribed work-from-home as a fix to the problem of too few women in the workforce. He gave two reasons. First, “they do not have to leave home and face molestation or badnaami (bad reputation).” Second, it will make it feasible for them to do “both office and family chores.” A newly formed political party launched by actor Kamal Haasan promised salaries to housewives if voted to power. Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor welcomed the idea, saying this will not only “recognize and monetize services of women homemakers in society but also enhance their power and autonomy and create near-universal basic income.”
I come from a family where my mother chose to work for equal, if not more, pay as my father. She was over-qualified for the position that she held till her retirement in December 2018. But not wanting to challenge any more societal mores or disrupt the equanimity at home, she chose to stay underpaid and slog it out. Along with her nine-to-five job, she cooked every meal in our household of four until she retired in 2018. Additionally, she kept up regular appearances in social and family functions. Despite it all, she was constantly admonished by in-laws for not doing enough, for not being there for her children, and for not being a “good mother.”
The millennial generation of which I am a part has been spoiled for choices in terms of personal as well as professional decisions. While most women still look at keeping a job (if only for pocket money), a very small fraction want to excel in their chosen profession. Some percentage of women who choose to get married in their mid- or late 20s quit professional life to stay home. Having kids still trumps having a career. Some friends and acquaintances who have gone that way attribute the decision to the husband’s “ample” income or the in-laws not “allowing” their daughters-in-law to work or further still, to adhere to societal customs.
Added to this, women often devalue or don’t acknowledge informal or domestic work as work. Women agricultural workers laboring on family land often identify themselves as housewives, even though they perform the majority of non-harvesting duties, alongside taking care of livestock and handling business. Home-based workers who bring in close to 40 percent of the family income do not acknowledge their contribution to the supply chain, and this is compounded by the official lack of recognition of home-based work as a trade. Housewives who take care of families don’t necessarily see it as work either.
While women’s participation in the workforce has long been made invisible, the pandemic also brought to light the importance of their work. The crisis had a compounded impact, as there was an increased burden of unpaid domestic work on working women, revealing broader fault lines. This long-standing lack of recognition and respect for informal work not only shapes international and national policy discourse, but also embeds itself in the mindsets of these workers. It governs how women are paid. Gender pay gaps might be big talk in major industries globally, but at the ground level, most women don’t care as long as they are able to bring something to the household kitty. For them, at the end of the day, being seen as a “good mother, wife, daughter-in-law” is more important than being independent.
In cases when individuals see themselves as workers, they continue to let go of their agency, negating their entrepreneurial abilities. During the pandemic, the national conversation turned to the essential nature of informal work. But the workers, especially women, themselves did not fully grasp the importance of what they do and their contribution to GDP, which is still unaccounted for. Women, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, continue to provide the fallback option for most Indian households.
Attitudes, perceptions, and policies in India and across the world have historically been skewed against women but are undergoing a gradual shift. While some men did chip in with kitchen duties during the pandemic, and more men have started taking paid or unpaid paternity leave across India, this shift is largely in urban and upper-middle-class sectors. How informal women workers look at their own work remains unchanged. In 2020, as the pandemic forced an entire generation of women into the backup role, it remains to be seen what will persist into the future.
While the pandemic compounded a series of hardships for so many, women have again been at the receiving end of the lion’s share of suffering. It’s essential to frame women’s social progress as one among many unquantifiable losses. It is important to point out that the pandemic has forced us — or should be forcing us — through women’s struggles, to grapple with the broad human consequences of undervaluing care work across society.
Featured image: “Teacher’s room at Baidya Para Girls High School during new normal era of COVID-19 pandemic 20201207 100427” by Sumita Roy Dutta is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.
Banner image: “COVID-19 antigen testing centre Warora Maharashtra India” by Ganesh Dhamodkar is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.