Centre for Internet & Society

This report by Anchita Ghatak of Parichiti presents findings of a pilot study conducted by the author and colleagues to document the situation of women domestic workers (WDWs) in the lockdown and the initial stages of the lifting of restrictions. This study would not have been possible without the WDWs who agreed to be interviewed for this study and gave their time generously. We are grateful to Dr Abhijit Das of the Centre for Health and Social Justice for his advice and help. The report is edited by Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon, and this work forms a part of the CIS’s project on gender, welfare and surveillance supported by Privacy International, United Kingdom.


Domestic Workers’ Access to Secure Livelihoods in West Bengal: Read (PDF)

Cross-posted from Parichiti.

Executive Summary

Hundreds of thousands of women from poor communities work as domestic workers in Kolkata. Domestic work is typically a precarious occupation, with very little recognition in legislation or policy. Along with other workers in the informal economy, women domestic workers (WDWs) were severely impacted by the national lockdown enforced in March, with loss of livelihood and few options for survival.

Parichiti works with WDWs in 20 different locations - slums and informal settlements in Kolkata and villages in south 24 Parganas. We conducted this pilot study from late June to August 2020 to document the situation of WDWs from March onwards, in the lockdown and the initial stages of lifting of restrictions. We interviewed 14 WDWs on the phone to record their experiences during the lockdown and after, including impact on livelihoods. The objectives of the study were to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives of WDWs, with focus on economic and health dimensions.

We found that most domestic workers in our sample were paid for March, but faced difficulties in procuring wages April onwards. During this period, they faced economic hardships that threatened their survival, with members of their family also involved in the informal sector and experiencing loss of wages. Workers survived on relief received through civil society or by taking loans from banks or informal lenders. Some are now stuck in a debt trap.

Most went back to work from June, but faced several barriers – public transport services continued to be dysfunctional, apartment complexes prohibited entry of outsiders, and employers were reluctant to allow workers into their homes. Employers were wary of workers if they were employed in multiple households or used public transport, forcing workers to adapt to these conditions. Due to these reasons, some workers lost their jobs permanently, while others returned with lower wages or lower number of employers. Workers were well aware of the precautions to be taken at the home and workplace with regards to Covid-19.

Many WDWs were unable to access ration through the Public Distribution System. Some were not enrolled and others were enrolled in the districts they had migrated from. Some were not classified as below the poverty line and were hence not priority households for the state, although they were ‘deserving’ beneficiaries. All of the respondents were affected by Cyclone Amphan, which devastated parts of the state in May 2020. Despite the announcement of a sizeable compensation by the state, those whose homes were impacted were unable to get any relief. WDWs overall tended to not rely on the state for welfare or health services. Many regarded public health systems to have poor quality services, and turned to private services when possible. Both central and state governments fell short of meeting the needs of WDWs during the pandemic, which could potentially have long-term impact on their income and health.


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