Precarities of informal rental housing during the pandemic: interview with a domestic workers’ union in India

An inability to pay rent during COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in significant financial duress for domestic workers, leading them to agree to lower salaries and longer hours of work and setting back years of union negotiation to assert labour rights. This interview transcript with union representatives illustrates the experiences of domestic workers in Jaipur.

Informal housing block with children playing in front

An informal rental housing arrangement accessed by domestic workers in Jaipur, India (Photo: Nidhi Sohane, IIHS, CC BY-NC-ND)

The COVID-19 pandemic in India was accompanied by a series of lockdowns imposed by the central and state governments.

The first was a series of four lockdowns in 2020, from 24 March 2020 to 31 May 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. Then, in 2021 the governments again imposed lockdowns when India was hit by the severe and deadly Delta wave.

These lockdowns had a huge economic impact on the informal sector of the country, hurting livelihoods and the employment of informal workers. The absence of robust social protection, and the inability of the state to provision well-rounded relief pushed the vulnerable into deeper precarity.

This piece specifically illustrates the case of domestic workers in Jaipur. Given the nature of contagion of the pandemic, and the anxieties it evoked in the social dynamic in our cities, domestic workers were barred from coming inside houses to work. Due to the informality of this sector, there was no income security, and domestic workers suffered severe pay cuts, going months without income.

While state relief focused mostly on basic food provisions, cash transfers, moratoriums and labour support, it was not accessible to workers in the informal sector such as domestic workers.

Further, rental housing was not in the purview of provisioning relief at all. This was an issue for all those who live in rental housing, and did not have the means to pay rent.

At this intersection were migrant informal workers, who access housing through rental housing and were also the ones to suffer immediate loss of income. Having soon depleted their savings, they didn’t have means to pay the rent.

The Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and the Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgar Union (RMKU) have a working relationship of co-producing research around issues of domestic workers in Jaipur. One of the key issues has been the quality and access to informal rental accommodation, which is a key mode for domestic workers to find housing in proximity to their workplace.

To give some context to these informal rentals: they are typically single room tenements often sharing services with similar tenements owned by one or more landlords. A discussion between IIHS and RMKU teams dived deep into the effect of the pandemic on rental housing for these domestic workers.

By following experiences of the union and its members in navigating their rental issues during the lockdown, this piece unveils the progressive and transversal impact rental dues had on other spheres of life and how it deepened precarity of domestic workers.

It reveals that an inability to pay rent resulted in financial duress which pushed domestic workers to agree to lower salaries and longer hours of work. This was a setback for the years of negotiation by the union and its members to assert their labour rights. It also sheds light on the ability of the union in working on issues that are seen beyond its purview, and on the strategies it employed in the process.

Through describing the difficulty of working across stakeholders and the union’s attempts and limitations in resolution of the issues, this piece brings forward the gap in the state’s conception, understanding and implementation of relief and social protection.

The discussion ends with reflections on the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach bringing together policymakers, elected representatives, researchers, landlords, employers and domestic workers. It also underlines the need for the state to include housing as part of relief, to expand social security databases for coverage of a larger number of informal workers, and the value of grassroot organisations like the union in framing these policies.

The transcript of the discussion below is largely unstructured, a space to collectively think and collate the insights from RMKU’s experience with rental housing issues for its members across the years of the pandemic.

The conversation with IIHS researchers Nidhi Sohane (NS) and Antara Rai Chowdhury (ARC) took place in Jaipur on 5 February, 2023 in hindi language and has been translated by one of the seven participants, who are: Meva Bharti (MB), head of RMKU; Ramvati Choudhary (RC); Snehlata Parik (SP); Meena Sharma (MS); and Vasna Chakravarti (VC), all coordinators of RMKU.

A group of women who are socially distanced and wearing protective masks, sit on benches and the grass.

Domestic workers with Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgar Union (RMKU) meet to discuss ways to negotiate for their lost salaries during the COVID-19 lockdown at a park in Jaipur in May 2020 (Photo: RMKU, CC BY-NC-ND)

NS: Our discussion today will cover rental issues of domestic workers during the lockdown. Across the four state mandated lockdowns and the entire experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, what was your experience (regarding rental issues of domestic workers)? Let's start with how rent did or did not become a burden.

MB: During the first lockdown we didn't see rent become a very big issue. Firstly, this was the first time in the world that everything was closed down at once, so it was also a new experience. People thought, all right it's a 21 day lockdown, we will get some reprieve after that. But lockdowns continued to be enforced, and with it continued the difficulties of people. In the first lockdown, the biggest problem was food, not so much rent. 

Then came the second lockdown. The landlords told their tenants outright: “We deferred your rent in the first lockdown, but don't expect anything in the second one”. People were to pay rent even if they had no food to eat. So we thought about what our role as a union could be in this scenario. There were some immediate cases (of rental issues) which my colleagues will talk about in detail. 

So in the first one (lockdown) we thought this was a unique situation, and the biggest problem was that people no longer had employment. Domestic workers took the largest hit in losing livelihoods. This is because they work inside the homes of other people, which during the pandemic, they weren't allowed to even enter. So there was no work, and they received no payment, even if they asked for it. 

Earnings and rent are very much tied to each other. So we immediately began to focus on helping in the cases that were coming up. We thought this was very necessary.  

They could manage food somehow or another at this point, but if they lost shelter how would they live?

Meva Bharti - head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

Then, in the third phase of the lockdown, the same thing happened. There was no work for some time but then work started again, and people either dipped into their savings or started adjusting [their expenses] to pay instalments [of rent]. In the end, they lost all their savings. My colleagues will share all the difficulties faced due to rent.

SP: When this lockdown was first enforced, we also did not know what it was, and thought it would be over in a fortnight. Domestic worker women also thought work would re-open in a fortnight but that's not what happened.

During the first lockdown they didn't face that much difficulty because they had savings. The union also took [the] initiative in some areas, like talking to landlords for rental relief: on the phone, and also in person in some cases.

Those landlords who depend on rent for subsistence, told us: “You are asking us to forego rent but how will we run our own household?” We explained to them to come up to a middle ground – if the tenant has money they will help you, if you have it, you help the tenant.

The landlords agreed that both parties should help each other since they both depend on each other. So these are the initiatives we took and secured some relief. At some places the landlords were rude and impolite, such as a case in Hathroi.

The domestic worker woman did not inform the union at first, but later sought help and the union went to talk to the landlord in person. The landlord said: “We have given the house on rent so we will definitely take rent. How does it matter to us if the tenants have work or not.” I said (to the landlord): “You're able to make do (financially), right?” Then the domestic worker said she did not want to quarrel and was also asking for too much rent. She preferred vacating the place and shifting to a rental accommodation with lower rent.

We went and talked to the landlords face-to-face this way, and over the phone at some places. We spoke [with their employers] about their payment as well. [We said) when the government has closed everything down, if not full, you [the employers] can at least pay half [the income]. Domestic workers used that half income to pay partially for ration, partially for rent. This is how we established some kind of a working system.

NS: Snehalata ji, what you've told me is during the first lockdown, or combining all of the lockdowns?

SP: Combining them all.

NS: If we try to trace it, when was it that you as a union started taking initiative to help people with their rental dues?

SP: It wasn't that much of an issue in the first lockdown, they also had some savings at that time. During the second lockdown, [we thought] these will keep going on, until when can we go on like this? 

In the third lockdown, the problem increased. But in the third one they also partially got back to work, the second one was more problematic. So that's when we helped them the most.

NS: So during the second lockdown, you helped with rental dues. And the reason was, as you said, the link between income and rent – because there was no income, and because there was no relief in rental expenses. Can we say that was the major reason?

SP: Yes, absolutely.

RC: In the first lockdown, the money women had saved. The problem of rent was so acute that women who had saved for [their children's school] fees redirected this fees money into rent. In the second lockdown, women also accrued debts of huge amounts as high as rupees 60,000 or 30,000 a woman, because of rent. 

RC: So this is how we spoke to many landlords, on the phone and in person. At that time it seemed like the union should focus more on rental dues than on food. There was pressure building on the tenants to vacate, and it's not easy to find another accommodation close to their place of work. 

This was a problem in front of the union and the domestic workers. The union thought what it should do and decided to talk to the landlords to reduce the pressure of rent on the tenants – we didn't ask for all of the rent to be foregone either, whatever they were comfortable with: whether one, two or three months. Give whatever relief in rent you are able to, but give at least some relief. 

Some agreed to defer it and take it in instalments, but not forego [even part of] the rent, saying they would charge the [complete] rent come what may. Then the domestic worker women agreed to pay in instalments, but over a longer duration of time that could be more than a year. The landlords said they'd agree because it was coming from the union, and the influence of the union was useful here.

The landlords had confidence that the union does what it says, and a union representative saying something has a different kind of influence. Some landlords were also dismissive of the union, but somewhere they also felt that what we are saying makes sense.

This is how there was some rental relief at that time because of the union and its initiatives.

NS: You've pointed out a few very interesting things. Like the influence of the union. If we unravel this a little, what were the types of areas where you were able to do this? Because as we know, domestic workers live all across Jaipur in various classes of neighbourhoods. Some (landlords) are dependent on rent for their subsistence, some treat it like a business, and some are indifferent and let tenants stay as long as they pay the rent. Now when you speak about paying rent in instalments, through your rapport with the landlords, or the influence of the union – were you only able to do this in certain locations or with certain kinds of people? How much was the need, and how capable was the union in dealing with it with this particular mode of intervention? 

SP: Raja Park and Moti Dungri: these are big areas. Now, in Moti Dungri, only two of 10 landlords agreed to give relief. The other eight were insistent on getting rent. 

In Raja Park, the landlords also know of the union because women tenants come to union meetings. For instance, Raheema ji's landlord did not pressurise her for rent. Or Sushila ji's landlady in Vidyadhar Nagar — she is a widow and was able to understand the problem.  

So places we succeeded in were those [landlords] who didn’t run it as a business unlike Lala ka Makaan. They [landlords] were medium income: some running a grocery store, or doing some other smallish work. The landlord I spoke to in Malviya Nagar was also middle income. Also, the women here are active leaders in the union, so the landlords also know of the union through them. That made a great difference. 

NS: And the second part of the question I asked: what were some other modes of intervention you employed. For instance you said speaking with the landlord was only successful in two of 10 in one location. Did you employ any other steps for the others, or were they out of your scope? 

SP: No, we went and met with them as well. These eight of 10 people were ones we only spoke on the phone, and couldn't go meet in person. But say, Vidyadha Naga, when I went there I spoke to them [landlords] in person and they agreed. 

SP: We also spoke to moneylenders who had given loans for houses. I spoke to them on behalf of the union, saying: “You can't force them or continue to charge interest because there is no source of income. The government has also announced/mandated that instalments be pardoned.”  

He questioned who I was, and I introduced myself, with the domestic worker women supporting me. We also gave them the union calendar, showed him older union calendars and he agreed and said: “OK, I'll do as you’ve suggested, I won’t charge as much interest, and only take the principal.” 

NS: So where there was no existing rapport or relationship, you tried to forge new ones in a way, and tried to arrive at solutions. 

SP: Absolutely. 

NS: Vasnaji, can you share your experience about all this? 

VC: In the first lockdown, things were managed some way or the other, we didn't focus specifically on rent as we were busy distributing ration. In the second one, we spoke to the landlords. The ones who were close by, we spoke in person; those [landlords] far away we took phone numbers from the tenants and spoke on the phone. 

Among these, some landlords readily agree saying:  “All right, these people [tenants] are poor, have no work, we can also see what their condition is. They can't pay all of it, but as the lockdown lifts and you all return to work, incrementally they can pay at least half the rent.” 

So half rent was discussed. In this way, some gave relief for one month, some for two. In places where say 3-5 families were living, 1-3 months’ relief was given 

VC: So in this way, many tenants were able to secure relief – one or two months of rent being waived off. Landlords who are completely dependent only on rental income for subsistence said: “'We won't be able to forego the rent, but won’t force them also. As and when in the next 1-2 years or six months, your [tenant’s] work restarts and you are able to run your households, you pay me slowly, incrementally in instalments.”

There might be a few people who still are paying the instalments, but we were able to do this much by mediating and talking to the landlord.

NS: Meenaji, what was your experience?

MS: No one had any idea that there would come such a time when everything would be shut. In the first lockdown, our domestic worker women thought it was closed only for a few days. They thought: “It’s OK, we will get leave and will be comfortable.” As the lockdown gradually prolonged, they started facing difficulties.

But in the second corona [lockdown], their landlords started asking for rent. Domestic workers faced many problems because they had spent all the money in the first corona [lockdown] and had nothing left. As soon as they faced trouble with rent, they got in touch with us.

We were on field even during the pandemic and in constant contact with the domestic worker women. We got in touch with the landlords on the phone first. When we spoke to them they understood a little bit.

MS: Wherever we went, we saw rental dues were mounting – as much as 30-50,000 – and our [domestic worker] sisters didn’t know how they would repay this debt. There were continual phone calls from them about landlords asking them for rent, and not having the money to pay.

So we spoke to the landlords that [tenants] would pay in small instalments, incrementally as they got back to work. We asked them to give this much relief, that the tenants didn't have to give all the money at once. The landlords agreed, and now the dues are almost cleared. There are very few instances where rental dues have not been cleared. Others are OK, they don't have the problem of rental dues.

There were many cases. We spoke to many owners, and were successful too. We ourselves were conscious of the rental issues of domestic workers associated with us and wanted to help them.

We would immediately reach the place where we got a distress call for rent, because we felt nothing bad should happen with them as had happened with the woman who got evicted from her house. There was only one case of such an eviction, but on our speaking with them, landlords would agree to either give rental relief of a month, or two or three, or defer the rent to later be taken as instalments.

We were also training the leaders of the union for them to take initiative. This was not only for themselves, but to also support others around them based on that training, encouraging them

Snehlata Parik, coordinator, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

NS: Thank you for sharing experiences from your respective areas regarding rent during the pandemic. Let's deepen the discussion, These are the things you were able to do as area coordinators. Did you also see other leader members from the union being able to do similarly? How much from union resources did you have to devote to this?

SP: We were also training the leaders of the union for them to take initiative. This was not only for themselves, but to also support others around them based on that training, encouraging them, that, if I can do it, so can you.

We did training through online modes, in person and by example. So they saw and worked with each other, and with each other's support they also gained confidence and did [took initiative] also. For instance in C-scheme, Hathroi, Imli Fatak, Lal Koti. In Lal Koti some landlords were listening to them, and some were not. So there they took support from us. So we did it together this way.

ARC: So, when you say they (landlords) didn’t listen to them (domestic worker leaders), you went and spoke directly to them (landlords)

SP: Yes. 

ARC: Did that change their perspective? 

SP: Yes. 

ARC: Why do you think that was – that they (landlords) weren't convinced by them (domestic worker leaders) but were by you?

SP: Some of it depends on the area. In some places domestic worker women have a… slightly difficult equation... with respect to work or behaviour. Where domestic workers had a good rapport with the landlord, they didn't face an issue. Where there was a difficult rapport, the landlords were not convinced. So when we went they [landlords] would ask us: “You explain to them [tenant] also”. So that's how it happened.

NS: That means a lot rested on personal relationships?

SP: Yes.

NS: And where the personal relationship was a little dubious, you used the influence of the union?

SP: Yes.

NS: This training you are talking about, what was the scale of rent-related complaints from member women that you had to foray into training? Also, was this aspect of training planned or more organic? 

SP: We had meetings on this officially as well. We were seeing how these problems [of rent] were coming up, we knew domestic workers did not have money and the landlord would demand rent. So towards this, we thought of training a few women, and guiding them so the problem does not escalate. So we planned it first and then did it. 

MB: What Snehalata ji is saying is accurate. We planned it in a very organised way at the time of problems in housing. We conducted meetings officially with our coordinators and leaders. Then we also spoke with the women on Zoom on how to deal with possible problems. 

The women’s perspective was that they were apprehensive of talking to their landlords directly lest they be evicted for speaking about it. So that's where our role mainly was. 

We intervened directly in many instances at that time, at places where we thought problems were likely. And then our area leaders started doing this as well, citing things like government announcements around rent in instances where problems were likely.

So doing all this made a lot of impact, and in some places it is a humane perspective which works. So they [landlords] also felt that they could see what the condition [of tenants] was and they agreed to those things [rental relief]. We went about all this in a very organised way.

NS: So you're saying through your experience of the first lockdown you were already able to anticipate that rent would be an issue? 

MB: Yes, absolutely, we did. As the first lockdown was ending, we could see if this happened again perhaps the first problem would be that of evictions from [rental] accommodation.

NS: How did you gauge this at the end of the first lockdown – had women already begun telling you that their savings were about to exhaust, or did you ask them [about rent]? Because there is a lot of thought apparent in this: you have planned in advance a strategy for what to do if there is another lockdown; grasping what was happening on ground when there was already such a huge pressure around rations, COVID-19 and health. How did you grasp it on ground: did the women tell you, what was the scale of this? 

SP: Women said this themselves: “Ration was distributed and is used up; we had savings we used that; but now when rent becomes a need what will we do?” So we planned ahead and took steps.

MB: Our union has a structure, which is the basis for our calendar [of tasks]. We have monthly area-wise meetings. So the demand for those meetings was also coming up. Women were bored being locked at home all the time, and were feeling if they could get back to work in at least one house, they could get out; for at least the meetings to start with.

People in chairs socially distance themselves in a queue

An Indian patient is tested for COVID-19 (Photo: Trinity Care Foundation, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

MB: As soon as there was some leniency in the lockdown, the meetings were restarted. Many things reached us through these meetings because we were on field and spoke [directly] to them [domestic workers]. So in this time, many issues were coming up, as Snehalata ji just added, about exhausted savings, children's education...

They managed rent in the first one without letting it become an issue. But they themselves said: “Were this to happen again, the first thing that we will be trapped about will be accommodation. We won't be able to pay rent.” This rent is a huge amount, and makes for half of their income. So this big issue came up and we made a strategy on that basis. 

Were this to happen again, the first thing that we will be trapped about will be accommodation. We won't be able to pay rent

Feedback from women domestic workers

NS: Another thing related to this, is women's capability to handle all this. Across the four phases of the lockdown, this capacity could increase or decrease as well, because there was no income to give them a confidence to ride through the difficulties. So what would your comment on this complexity be?

MB: Regarding women's capacity, we’ve seen that women naturally [typically] tackle multiple things at a time: she tackles children, family, work, relationships. She has the capacity to bring all this together and she also endures a lot.

Because they are used to this, we saw there was a lot they were able to handle. We saw across all phases of the COVID-19 lockdown that women went into depression less, while their male counterparts – men in the family, youth, children – they went into depression. Especially the men who lost their jobs.

Many had to take treatment for this, counselling as well. But this was less so in the case of women. We saw very few women go into depression regarding this.

There was just one reason for them to come out of this. Firstly, through the union there was a platform where they were sharing things and many things were being resolved by this big platform working for them.

Second, they were constantly getting emotional support that if things were to get dire we would be standing in support with them - we were talking to the government, physically going and talking to them [domestic worker women], which gave them a constant moral support, and they were able to come out [of a depressive state], and we also counselled them continuously to bring them out. So this was a big factor at play.

NS: You said something very poignant which I was also about to ask about. This pressure that affects mental health, like you gave an example of the union speaking to them – in this, financial burden becomes a factor [that affects mental health]. You mentioned that many people paid back [rent] in instalments, and even the last year when we were talking among ourselves, we realised that many were still paying back their instalments [even a year after the lockdowns]. They continued to pay much after the lockdown was lifted. Sure, they got moral support during the lockdown, but in your experience what was the effect of longstanding rental dues – on their mental health, on cutting back on other expenses of the households, on exhausted savings, on their individual and family lives? So maybe they endured it in the lockdown, but what was the situation like later? Because we were able to follow them for months after the lockdown. What was it then and what is it like now?

MB: I will say a few things, and then others can add. First, we saw a cutback in children's education. That was the first thing that happened, especially girls – their education was stopped midway, those [girls] who had been regularly sent to school. 

Second, we saw cutbacks being made in food. If they were having daal and a vegetable [every meal], then they came down to either only daal or only one vegetable [per meal]. In the middle those eating non-veg stopped eating it completely.

Third, any extra expenses like on marriages saw significant cutbacks. If they bought two sets of clothes a year, only one was bought. These were the kinds of cutbacks.

NS: Were these cutbacks due to the rent as well, because rent makes for a big part in the financial burden that accompanied COVID-19?

MB: Absolutely. Rent had a big role in the overall effect of COVID-19. That was the cause behind all these difficulties. Whatever the rent is, it has to be paid. Where will I live if I don't pay rent? All other things in life lean on housing, where will I go? So securing that [housing] was prioritised. To do so, where will they cut back expenses from? So these were the costs they cut back and redirected to rent. 

Whatever the rent is, it has to be paid. Where will I live if I don't pay rent? All other things in life lean on housing

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

SP: By the third lockdown, work had not resumed to its full extent. So the rent of three years had built up quite a bit and there is a limit to how much you can convince the landlords. They already agreed for rent to be given in instalments, and that they [tenants] were asking to reduce by 100-200 rupees.

But some money had to be given as rent. So they made trade-offs in these other things, as (Meva) didi just said. They cut back expenses in other areas to pay rent, so that they could continue maintaining good rapport with the landlords. Since the landlords cooperated, tenants also wanted to keep their part of the deal, as a responsibility, and maintain the rapport in this way. 

NS: This point you've raised Snehalata ji: rent had become a debt, and you said they weren't getting back employment easily. So if we think a bit about income and rent. When the third or second lockdown was lifted what kind of incomes did they go back to and what were the compulsions that made them take up work at those incomes?

SP: The compulsion or duress was that there was no work. The husbands earlier used to earn by working in hotels or other places, but their work had stopped. Many were not taken back at work if they had fallen ill.

Factory workers were also retrenched. Many domestic worker women's husbands lost work permanently. There are still some who haven't got work back. Seeing their condition landlords came to a middle ground, that if you pay what you can, but pay something as rent.

Domestic workers felt that since the landlords helped and adjusted at that time, they should also do something to return the favour. So they started making cutbacks in children's education, basic needs.

MB: I'll add something here. Women went back to work at lower incomes, sometimes at half pay. If she earned rupees 10,000 earlier, for the same house and same quantum of work, the employer now said they could only pay rupees 5,000, take it or leave it.

At that time women thought, ‘I will at least be able to manage rent from that income, and get some ration’. So at this point, 5,000 is as good as 10,000 for me, I will at least have some work.

So we saw that in the second and third lockdowns, women [domestic workers] experienced pay-cuts. And when they spoke to the employers about it, the employers said: “We don’t feel the need now, we are used to doing the work ourselves.”

The employers who had stayed home during the lockdown had been doing the work themselves. They also saw this as an opportunity to oppress domestic workers, knowing that the latter were in debt and would agree to anything at this point. This had been going on, now it is under control. The condition is slowly getting better.

MS: So more work for less money. They were getting paid less because of their desperate circumstances, but the employers too were giving them more work. When we talk of rent, so many new people joined us [the union] during the pandemic, who we hadn’t known previously. [Because] the union left an impression of being a large platform for domestic workers, which is working to help people.

We would receive phone calls even [late into] the night, from tenants saying their landlords were bothering them, and they [tenants] didn't have the means or money to pay them. So we would convince them on the phone itself.

We didn't know those women, they were not associated with the union, we don't know where they got the phone number from. But they are now associated well with the union and the union has also grown in its members.

Phone calls would come from new places, one woman would tell four new women. So we have found new areas to work in. No one had even imagined what the pandemic could be like. And these landlords, whoever is associated with us, they all know of this domestic workers’ union. You will find a union calendar in all these people's houses; everyone identifies the union all across Jaipur and even outside Jaipur. 

First, it was fixed to have four leaves in a month, but this was affected a lot. Employers don't want to give leave now. Domestic workers take two, or three at the most, so there has been a cutback in leaves as well. If you demand leave then you lose the employment

Vasna Chakravarti, coordinator, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

MS: The biggest thing is that during the lockdown is that even if rent for a month or two was waived [by the landlord], bills of electricity and water – water wasn't being billed at the time – but bills of electricity were not waived by anyone. Whatever might be their [tenant's] condition, tenants had to pay electricity bills.

This impacted [their financial burden] greatly. In some cases, the money saved for their children's weddings was rerouted into this, such that the children haven't been able to get married yet.

NS: This was spent on rent?

VC: On rent, on house-related things, there has been quite an effect. There were lots of problems in this manner, which is slowly coming back to track now. Even so, the elderly have almost no work. Some [employers] have been kind to call some of them to do some work, but otherwise no work. If [domestic workers] are ill, they also are not employed. There has been much (difficulty) at work. 

RC: After the onset of the pandemic, what happened regarding work and income was that there were now demands of 24-hour or 12-hour shifts. So the woman domestic worker who is living with her family is asked by the employer to live at the employer's place itself, not go and meet her family through the day, and just send money to her family.

These kinds of things started coming from the employer – that if you go home in the basti you will bring the COVID-19 virus with you. They think: “We will get COVID-19 from these labourer women”.

They also started pressuring domestic workers in other ways. Like they would tell the domestic worker to work only at their place, some would even ask them to give up work in other houses even when they were not employing them for the entire 12 hours, but only for two hours. Employers would put such conditions like these on domestic workers to hire them.

Some women started taking these 12-hour shifts. But when they were later told they wouldn't be allowed to meet their families, they said they couldn't do it in that case. Let me give you an example of a case in C-Scheme: the woman told me that her employer asked her to take 12-hour shifts at his place, also offering her rent-free accommodation on the condition that she doesn't meet her family – whether son, husband or whoever comes to meet her.

She told me she thought of taking up the offer for a month or so, since there was absolutely no money at home and she had rent and children's fees to pay. But when the employer pressured that she could in no way meet her children and family, she said she couldn't take the offer.

She said she could work for a couple of hours but not take the 12-hour shift. The employer then said he didn't want her to work, and to send any other woman she knew who would agree to these conditions. These kinds of conditions were also being put by the employer.

SP: What also happened was, suppose employers got COVID-19, they weren't calling domestic workers for work before that, but once they [employers] got COVID-19, they would call domestic workers for work for a few days, without revealing that they were infected with COVID-19.

Later when the domestic workers discover this, they say that it is the employers who get COVID-19, not us.

NS: During the pandemic we saw many people leave the city and go back to their villages. A reason for this was in the absence of income: instead of incurring expenses in the city, they go back to their villages. If we reflect a little on this – because we saw that after the first lockdown, people who left Jaipur to go to their villages came back to Jaipur for work. So how did rent figure in this, because rent is a big expense in the city. What are our observations on that stead?

SP: So, some of them vacated the rental house and left. As in, either consolidating their things in one room, and vacating the remaining one or two rooms; or completely vacating all rooms. 

Some struck an oral agreement with their landlords to pay only half the rent. So, if the rent was rupees 3,000, the landlord would only take 1,000 or 1,500 rupees, they wouldn't take much for a closed room. 

People from Hasanpura, behind MBC, had come to such agreements and gone back to Bihar. They went back to their village again in the second wave of the pandemic. They didn't have an idea in the first lockdown, but they realised they should leave early in the second wave. So they managed the rental accommodation this way before that.

The landlord also thought he may or may not get a tenant again, whatever rent comes is good, and agreed for half the rent. 

RC: Some left their things at their relatives and left. For instance, if my family is living here, and there is also a relative living here, I vacate the house and give my things to the relatives for them to use. Take some of the stuff along, but also leave some stuff with the relatives to use in our absence.

Some didn't go [to the village] at all. Those who had a house in the village went, but those who didn't have their own house in the village would have to live with their relatives. They thought rather than become a burden on the relatives, we continue living here.

So there were both kinds of people. Those who had been living in Jaipur for many years didn't have their own houses in the village. So they thought rather than listen [to taunts] of the relatives, they listen to taunts here in Jaipur. 

NS: The women who vacated the rental housing and went to their villages – how easy or difficult was it for them to look for a place on their return to the city?

SP: It was easy in some cases, difficult in some. It's easy for those who have relatives here, because they go and come with their relatives' support. Their relatives arrange something for them before they come back. 

And those who don't have relatives face issues in finding a place. They've even had to live on pavements [because of homelessness].

NS: During the pandemic?

SP: Yes

NS: So you're saying if people went to their villages – taking some things and leaving some things – there were some who, having vacated their rental house before leaving, were not able to find housing after returning?

SP: Yes, for instance if there is a neighbour who is an acquaintance or a relative - they say they also have little space, so they have had to stay in the veranda or such spaces. I saw such cases mostly behind MBC.

MS: Of the domestic workers who came back from their villages, some used to live in post colony, and they were the ones who faced difficulty in finding housing. In kacchi bastis where houses are built of tin sheds or those that are in the peripheries of the city – there houses were available because they had all been vacated and were lying vacant.  

So the landlords of such housing stock were easily renting these out. But in areas where housing was desirable, the landlords were not renting houses out.

RC: And they had increased the rent as well. 

NS: This means that after they returned, domestic workers had to once again prioritise and choose between living close to the place of work, ie viability, affordability and adequacy. 

MB: Absolutely. Those who vacated (their rental accommodation) faced quite a bit of difficulty. Some families are such they haven't returned yet. They were so terrified by the first lockdown.

Some families… haven't returned yet. They were so terrified by the first lockdown

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

MB: As soon as other people started going back to their villages, filling bus after bus – and they saw that on TV and in person – they sensed that a second lockdown was about to be imposed, they went to their villages before the lockdown could take effect. So there are people who have gone and not come back yet.

SP: Some people had gone thinking they would return once the pandemic was over, because they wouldn't be able to farm in the village. Having stayed in villages for two, four or six months, they got a hang of it [farming]. 

So because they are unsure when the pandemic will strike again, and the difficulty it would be accompanied by, they have stayed permanently in the village itself. They will think of coming only when all is normal.

NS: You all have recounted the ways in which the union tried to reduce burdens [of rent] in the lives of domestic workers [during the pandemic]. There were great financial repercussions [of rental dues] on domestic workers. This is the reason the union also intervened by either employing union influence or past rapport, or strategising to train domestic worker leaders.


Let's discuss openly now on what other strategies you could make. Because I'm guessing much of it was in response to the crisis, and we haven't had a proper chance to reflect on it. So if we do that now, and think what would have helped you to make more meaningful relief? What were the limitations you were operating under?

MB: One of the limitations was that the domestic workers who live in the rental housing are mostly migrants. 

If we pressurise the government too much, it could lead to a different kind of reaction leading to the migrants to vacate. Even the domestic workers who we were working with didn't want us to ruffle too many feathers

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

MB: So we only intervened where there was difficulty. We couldn't do much at a policy level as the intervention should have been, because of this fear from both sides. 

We had a fear that the domestic workers should not be rendered homeless. And the domestic workers had a fear that if they were evicted, no one would rent a house out to them because of the pandemic, and even after the pandemic. This is something we felt we couldn't do too much about.

NS: Retrospectively, what would have made it more amenable for you all to act on rental relief? If this was to happen again, what are the things – whether it’s support from the state, or capacity of the union – will help us deliver rental relief for our members?

MB: The biggest problem is that had the domestic workers been associated or registered with any social security system, we could have interfered very easily, and could have pressured the government to announce a relief package to reach them.

In the first wave of the pandemic, there was plenty of pressure on the state and it was a novel thing too. At first the state didn't do much, but as pressure was built by various organisations, the state announced a relief package.

If I give you an overall picture, this benefit from the state reached a mere 10% of the unorganised sector. This is because they [workers in the unorganised sector] are not registered anywhere, so how will they get any benefit?

Only the few who were somehow linked to the social security network – say, had a bank account or were registered through Jan Dhan – only they received the benefit. Had the state properly implemented a policy on rent, or highlighted it even a little bit...

We had presented [difficulties of domestic workers] to the state and administration but they did not pay attention. 

A doctor wearing protective clothing treats a woman patient over a desk.

People socially distance themselves as they queue at a health clinic in India (Photo: Trinity Care Foundation, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Interfering in rental matters was not a priority for the state at all. The state believes that it is a matter of agreement between the tenant and the landlord, the state has no role to play

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

MB: Had there been any attention of that kind, something would have been possible. The union doesn't have the kind of power to enforce its own law on anyone. We can only interfere, and can only play the role of a mediator to help those who face problems.

NS: This thing you said – about the value of social security and registration, and how that would have made intervention easier – this is very important. If you consider rent along with other things we discussed. One, that there was a burden on income; two, on food. 

You said that in the first lockdown you experienced that the difficulties on income and food needed to be addressed in some way, and health was a given concern all through the pandemic. So, if we add rent into the mix… because it seems like rent, which is a financial burden, also affected these other spheres. For instance, we talk about food security, but we see people were cutting back on their food to be able to pay rent. 

So rent clearly is affecting nutrition, and therefore health – not just in terms of COVID-19 virus. Also, as a labourer, agreeing to work on less pay — while there were other factors which also informed this choice – rent is also clearly a financial push that is driving this decision.

So when you speak about social security and reduction in savings, and we look at rent in conjunction with the three things [nutrition, health and labour rights], is there something you want to communicate to the government or any other stakeholder that would make relief a little better?

MB: We absolutely want to put some things forward. Housing has been absolutely put on the sidelines by our state.

First, our policy would deal with roti, kapda, makaan – ie. food, cloth and shelter – three things that are critical to lead a better life. Slowly it has been put on the side and discarded.

Housing is in most cases completely overlooked by the state, and housing is the biggest issue in cities. The settlements in cities are made by people coming from outside the city, a city doesn't get made by itself.

People will come from outside, settle, and then a city is made. Migrants come, work and go back – it's all seasonal labour, that's how it works.

Our state and bureaucracy has no plan towards it. We've seen this very closely, across the three phases, that from the state there is neither thought nor intention to act on this. They don't even want to see what is happening on ground [related to housing].

Then we saw that there was not much talk around rent, not even by the state. In fact, more attention was given to those who had taken car loans. To save companies, they said that the three months, and later four months, were exempted for loans.

These types of things happened for those loans. Something about housing loans. But who takes loans - mostly middle-class people or upper-class people who take larger loans. Labour class doesn't have access to loans anyway, so what good does this do for them, they are already excluded from this category?

So there is no framework of any kind [for rental housing], so a framework needs to be made, and the government needs to think how the people who make our cities, whose labour we use, those people are being discarded.

They are completely at the peripheries of our policies, they need to be made central to our policies. We can only do something better if we understand their problems.  

When the state has no policies to address this, and is not thinking about doing something about this, you can only do limited improvement from outside formal systems

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

MB: I feel we can't do much to change the ecosystem and the conditions created by it too much without state support.

NS: An important thing related to this is – who are the stakeholders you worked with or think you need to work with for successful improvement? I remember Meva di, you said that you had to take help from the police at times. 

So in the case of rent, did matters ever escalate enough for you to reach out to the police, or an MLA, MP or any other politician, to be able to create some kind of pressure to alleviate rental burden for domestic workers? Or do you see something along these lines for the way forward, that you could explore as a union?

MB: Absolutely, we see a way forward, and we gleaned lessons from all the things we saw across the phases. It is clear that landlords are a stakeholder. The places domestic workers go to work at, those employers are a stakeholder. Police is a stakeholder, bureaucracy is another, then there are the ward councillor, the MLA and MP of that area.

So if information is taken to all these stakeholders in a better way, rental relief will become much easier.

During the pandemic, we also took some help from the police. Meena ji got quite a bit done through the police. So these things are important.

At a local level, when things happen in the domain of a police station, it is critical at the time to have the police on your side. They have enough power to influence things just by speaking. If something critical is happening at the time, or someone is being evicted, if someone from the police even goes and stands there, the landlord feels that a representative of the government has come and is saying something that ought to be heeded. Similar power is wielded by the ward councillor, the MLA. They have a definite impact.

Going forward, it is a lesson and we have thought about this a lot afterwards, on what are the ways in which we can have a better rapport with these stakeholders, talk to them, and work even at a policy level along with them.

Many things are also to do with what relations or rapport you have. Like, if you are working in a given colony and have a good understanding with the ward councillor, you can get many things done. He just has to make a phone call and that itself will be effective. At that time this support is very important. So we have thought about all this, and have even begun working on it and will take this ahead.

NS: A critical thing in this is also taking police help, for instance. Before this you had mentioned that it is a delicate situation to figure out how much one intervenes so that the tenant is not pushed into further vulnerability or evicted. So regarding this balance – on how much pressure to apply or not – were there any insights from this on the kind of struggle this is, or the kinds of things one should pay attention to? 

NS: You mentioned challenges, and there is no straight answer to this that you can just tell the state to act on, because of numerous stakeholders, and other connected factors like income. If we were to look at this from the perspective of the landlord, as Meena ji also said. As we know, for many landlords rental income is what runs the household. You mentioned a way is to pay incremental instalments, but that was a solution you arrived on during an emergency, when there is no other way around it, and response needed to be immediate.  

But now that we have the time to reflect, what can we do that is in the welfare of both parties – landlord and tenant – so that neither is over-burdened? Are there any ideas that we have, even if they might not be in the capacity of the union, but require the intervention of a third or fourth stakeholder who needs to take responsibility?

How much or how little pressure you should apply depends a lot on the circumstances. If they [the landlords] are very rude or disrespectful, then we need to take police support. Many times it can also be resolved mutually by speaking

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

RC: The state keeps talking about e-shram card, and we can put pressure on it [its integration]. When there is an emergency like the pandemic, the state can use the e-shram card as a mode of disbursing a monthly financial support, because most people got e-shram cards made, and the state has also been pushing for it.

Domestic workers are not registered, but we propose registration to the state. As a union we can set up camps and identify where domestic workers live. We can make a programme to this effect to help the state think through this.

NS: What do you think should be the union's role in rental issues? During the pandemic, the union took action on some issues only because of how urgent it was, and perhaps because no one else was paying attention to said issues. But ideally, what position does RMKU want to take with regard to rental issues?

MB: In that we have developed a broad understanding of rental issues. First of all, we will see how many types of rental properties and how many types of landlords there are.  

We see that and analyse it, and then as a union we take it to the government and elected representatives, telling them where all they need to intervene, and where they can channel money from urban development or MNREGA budgets to undertake repair and improve conditions of living.

For instance they can directly control water and electricity. [For instance], the rate of electricity per unit is 6 rupees, but landlords take 12 rupees per unit, which is double the price – on what basis? They say that’s the charge they have to pay.

In fact we saw that many landlords charged as much as 50,000 rupees per tenant for electricity at the end of the lockdown. They charge and extract this amount from tenants, in any way. The tenants don't realise that the same (electricity) meter is connected to multiple homes, but [rather than split the cumulative amount] the total is being charged for each tenant. Such things can easily be put a check on by the state.

The second thing, some restrictions should be imposed on the landlords who use rental properties solely for business and profiteering. And some relief should be given to those landlords for whom rental income is the only way to run their household. We can think of such solutions.

NS: To reiterate, what should be the union's role in this? What you've shared is kind of the vision or ideology of the union, but what should be the role of the union?

MB: The union's role in this will be to bring the government to make a policy around this. Under that policy, responsibility is assigned to different departments. For instance, the urban development department should be responsible for the migrants who come to work in the city, and where they can live.

Especially domestic worker women: they work in the homes of others and need to live close to those colonies where they work. So what would be the places where these domestic workers can get rental accommodation easily? What facilities and amenities should be part of this accommodation? This responsibility can be taken up by them and we can speak to them about it.

Our role as union is to spread awareness, and to all parties involved. We make the tenants aware of the basic amenities they should demand in a rental accommodation - what are the five things that you absolutely need to have? And we speak to the authorities to push them to fulfil their responsibilities and ensure they put a check on the problems faced by tenants

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

NS: Open up the discussion a little more – to do this, you say the union's role will be that of a facilitator who will facilitate conversations across stakeholders, and mobilise people and increase their awareness. So what would be the way forward for the union regarding rent? Would you take some steps to take this conversation to the domestic worker women – what would you need to be able to do that? 

Through this discussion many things we knew have been put in one place. If we were to get rent under social protection, as we are imagining it to be, what are the steps the union needs to take, and which partners does it need? [For instance], does it need research, or to have people who talk to the state or make policies? What kind of infrastructure or partnerships do we need?

MB: For this we need people who are academics, who can understand the situation better.  

Next, we need people to take it to a policy level.

Then the most important stakeholder is the one who is living in rental accommodation and has to bear the brunt of the issues they face – ie the tenant. Awareness of the tenant is critical, and she needs to know that if she takes rental accommodation what is the minimum rent she has to pay and what are the basic amenities she ought to get.

If the tenant is aware of her rights, it is possible to resolve many problems at that level itself. Then it becomes a trend.  

The problem right now is that the tenant is not aware of her rights at all, and just looks to get accommodation in any way so she has some shelter

Meva Bharti, head, Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union

MB: So we need all these stakeholders, and we need to go bottom-up so we go ahead step-by-step by building an understanding from the ground. Even the government does not know what kind of rental housing is in our cities, what demographic lives there, what are the modes of finding it, and what is the quality of life.

In my understanding, they don't have an estimate of this sort, and if we were to conduct research on this and present it to them, asking them to be part of the conversation, it will have a different kind of an effect on them, and will also develop an understanding of the issue.

Then we can ask the state to conduct surprise assessments in a couple of places so they can see what the situation on ground is and what the living conditions of the tenants are. That should have an effect. The state should think of ways to make a policy to improve the housing conditions of migrants so they can live without facing problems.

NS: To sum up our requirements for the future: hard research, on the basis of which we measure the need; mobilising and spreading awareness around this – so a union campaign of sorts to communicate this information across all union members; and finally like you said, trying to get all stakeholders on the same platform through various means. Did I get that right?

MB: Yes, absolutely right.

NS: Thank you all for joining us today for this. We've been having parts of this conversation and thinking in different rooms, but we thought today to collate all thoughts in a couple of hours to take this conversation to others as well. So thank you so much for doing this. 



Head and shoulders photo of Nidhi Sohane.

Nidhi Sohane, senior associate, School of Human Development at Indian Institute for Human Settlements