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Influencers are appreciating their domestic help during lockdown; will it help solve the issues domestic workers face in India?

The pandemic and the lockdown have seen a wave of appreciative social media posts about domestic help from urban India’s celebrities and the not so famous alike. While many posted videos of a ritual aarti to express their relief about the help returning for work, some posted selfies or videos with them.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jun 07, 2020, 08.49 AM IST
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Archana Puran Singh has posted a series of vlogs on social media about her domestic help during the lockdown.
On May 7, actor-comedian Danish Sait Instagrammed a photo of him driving his domestic help, Geeta, to and from his apartment complex, adding he is “happy to have her back”. The lockdown guidelines in his locality in Bengaluru had eased a little, allowing domestic workers to enter residential buildings during a stipulated time. But Geeta couldn’t find transportation and the actor decided to pick and drop her.

Since April, Sait has been posting a series of now-viral comedy videos online, capturing the essence of the most common Covid- and lockdown-inspired conversations happening between different sets of people — parents and children, partners, friends, colleagues, employers and their domestic help. Among the recurring characters — Sait plays all characters using an array of accents and guises — are the fictional maid Jaya and her Didi (employer). The conversations are loosely based on Sait’s mother’s interactions with Geeta and some other help. “Is Jaya’s character based on your domestic help?” fans ask Sait every time he posts a fresh video.

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When his Instagram picture finally put a face to the part-inspiration for Jaya, many of his 600,000-odd followers on the platform flooded the comments section with heart emojis and “awwws”.

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The pandemic and the lockdown have seen a wave of appreciative social media posts about domestic help from urban India’s celebrities and the not so famous alike. While many posted videos of a ritual aarti to express their relief about the help returning for work, some posted selfies or videos with them. As Madhuri Braganza, actor in Malayalam and Kannada films, explains in her comment on Sait’s post: “This time has made us realise how much they (domestic workers) actually do for us…” Like Sait and Braganza, several celebrities have urged their fans to pay their maids regularly even if they are unable to come to work. Some have even promised salary hikes for household support staff.

The feel-good factor generated by these videos might scarcely prove adequate to change behaviours in a country where an estimated 4 million people work informally as domestic help, devoid of legal protection and left to the whims of their employers. And that’s bad news. This April, as the lockdown took hold across the country, 85% of domestic workers were not paid by their employers, according to a survey by Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council, a non-profit that works for formalisation of the sector.

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However, featuring domestic help on social media by influencers might help people relate more to their staff. If it helps change attitudes even a bit, that might prove to be the best use case of the currency of celebrity and social media influence.

Actor Archana Puran Singh has turned her live-in house help Bhagyashree into an Instagram star in the last two months. The lockdown gave her family the time and space to have conversations with their domestic assistants that went beyond the ambit of discussing daily chores. “It made us introspect whether we say thanks to them as many times as we should,” says Singh.

Singh, who stays behind the camera, captures her 28-year-old domestic worker’s sprightly attitude towards life amid this crisis. The slice-of-life conversations and antics have given Bhagyashree a fan following among Singh’s co-stars from the Hindi film industry.

Being on Sait’s Instagram post has given Geeta some publicity as well. “I showed her how celebs like Vidya Balan had liked the post on her,” says the 32-year-old actor-comedian.

Geeta is thrilled with the attention and thankful to Sait. But she’s also grateful to her former employers who always treated her well, says the 40-year-old. Sait believes it should be the norm instead of an exception.

“My mother taught my sister (actor Kubbra Sait) and me to be respectful towards our help. Mother is a single parent, so, growing up, our maid was the only other adult in the house besides her,” he says.

Bhagyashree, however, hears several stories of maids being mistreated and is relieved to be working for Singh. “Who does this for their domestic staff?” she asks, referring to the vlog series. Singh also gives financial advice to her so she can save up to buy a house in her hometown soon. “Maybe some people will learn from her videos to treat their maids better,” Bhagyashree adds.

Singh can already see a small change in attitude based on the reactions on her Instagram posts. For every comment criticising her for the vlogs, she gets 10 times as many cheering her on. “I can sense that many in the latter category are also converts who have had their reservations initially. They have gone from the state of shock to the state of being delighted in watching Bhagyashree’s videos,” she says.

Celebrities talking about their domestic workers does help bring the topic of treating them fairly to the fore, says Gurgaon-based adman Satbir Singh. “It starts a conversation, which is a good thing, to begin with.”

However, the advertising professional with over three decades in the industry, is not hopeful of a large-scale change, driven by this moment.

“It is a deep-rooted malaise,” he says. As heartwarming and welcome the celeb gestures are, they are unfortunately overpowered by stories of inequalities and injustice, notes Mumbai-based anthropologist Gayatri Sapru.

Domestic workers have always been facing issues in the absence of a legal framework to operate within. The pandemic merely helped drive home that point.

Many of urban India’s domestic workers migrate to metros from states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Bihar, and end up working at a median salary of Rs 1,500-2,000 per household per month, says Akanksha Khullar, a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in Delhi. Khullar’s focus area is nontraditional security issues, which include the social and financial security issues of domestic workers in India.

During the lockdown, at least 60-70% of domestic workers may not have received their salaries, she estimates. In January 2019, National Sample Survey Office estimated the population of domestic workers at private households in India at 3.9 million individuals (unofficial figures could be several times that).

“Many part-time workers have lost their jobs because people prefer taking full-time maids now, forcing the former to go back to their hometowns and start afresh,” adds Khullar.

There are workers with families in the city and cannot afford to relocate suddenly. Like Reema Kumari (name changed), a 45-year-old domestic worker from Delhi, who lives with her three kids. Kumari worked in six households in the city’s Rajendra Nagar area. But she could not go to their houses due to the lockdown. All six owe her salary right now. “I worked for them for 20 years,” she says, “and only one house gave me full salary for March. Nothing in April and May.”

The sadness in her voice sharpens as she talks about her watching over the children in those households without asking for extra money. She made Rs 12,000 a month in total from all these houses. “When I call them now, they say they will let me know if my services are needed anymore.”

Kumari says that more than the money, the sheer betrayal of trust broke her. She isn’t alone. BookMyBai.com, a domestic help aggregator active in Mumbai, Pune, and Bengaluru, has 50,000 active workers on its platform. “As per our estimate, around 40,000 may not have been paid during the lockdown,” says founder Anupam Sinhal. Most of them are part-time domestic workers in Mumbai.

Many employers have used the household support staff’s absence due to the lockdown as a justification for not giving them their dues.

But there are two other categories of non-payers as well: people who were laid off from their jobs in a single-income household and people who ended up spending a lot of their savings on Covid-related expenses. “No study has been conducted so far to determine which category has the biggest share,” says Khullar.

However, individual workers often have a decent idea of their employers’ financial situation.

“Some of the part-time workers on our platform are desperate for jobs but have decided not to go back to the employers who left them in a lurch during the lockdown,” says BookMyBai’s Sinhal. Sinhal has his hopes pinned on the latest National Policy on Domestic Workers that the Ministry of Labour & Employment has been trying to formulate for more than a year now. This could help formalise the hiring of domestic workers, grant them benefits such as minimum wages and access to social security, right to form associations and redress in case of abuse and exploitation.

However, Khullar notes that some or the other version of this policy has been doing the rounds for a decade now yet no government — central or state — has been able to put a stamp on it. She believes the lack of legal policy has to do with the place of work.

“No state government wants to interfere in the business of an individual’s household. Many state governments have tried to create a minimum wage policy for domestic workers in the past that they haven’t been able to follow. Some have received criticism despite following said policy.”

In the post-lockdown world, even a legal framework may not help domestic workers who are reluctant to work full-time. Sinhal anticipates this will be the biggest issue facing the industry in the coming months. “But a legal policy will give domestic workers confidence that there’s some recognition of their rights too,” says Khullar.
(Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

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