Securing social protection for informal workers in Jaipur during COVID-19: lessons from a labour union

How did a labour union secure social protection in the form of financial support for domestic workers during the COVID-19 crisis? Some reflections and lessons for strengthening the delivery of social protection to informal workers.

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)

Rama Chaudhary

RC: I am Rama Choudhary and I have been primarily working with women who work as domestic workers and with other women workers living in informal and low-income settlements as a mobiliser and co-ordinator with Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union.

Could you please share what was the union's role in the financial support that domestic workers received as cash transfers during the COVID-19 crisis?

RC:[During the first phase of lockdowns] in a meeting with the district collector of Jaipur (April 2020) it was discussed, and later announced, that workers in the unorganised/informal sector would get cash transfers as relief from the state. So we started making a list (database) of domestic workers so they could also get this relief.

We couldn’t go to the field during this time as there were restrictions on mobility (one had to get special permission from the state/police). Thus, we organised a meeting online and mobilised area leaders and other active members to join it through phone calls. Many children of the member-workers also joined us in the meeting. It was during this call that we figured out the operational parameters on how to go about making these lists (given our resources and capabilities) and ensure the relief reaches the workers.

Photos of two forms featuring tables.

Early iterations of the template circulating among area leaders for creating a database for cash transfers during 2020. It was the first time the union created a database for bank transfers and there were no clear directives (Photo: Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union)

We created a template or form that listed all the details that were required. We planned how we (union workers and member-workers) would distribute the work to fill them. We shared the template or form online, through WhatsApp, in all the areas. The leaders and volunteers in their respective areas printed them. It listed the bank account number, aadhar number, mobile number, address, ifsc code, bank name, branch name.

We made a list of around 7,000 domestic workers and sent it to the state government (labor commissioner). This was the first time we were making a list to facilitate direct bank transfers and at this scale, and that too from the (state) government. We did not have any information or experience on what would be adequate for successful transfers.

When we started tracking the status of the transfers and checking that against the list we realised that most of the successful transfers were made to those who had their bank accounts ‘updated’. But this was something that even the workers themselves didn’t know for sure at the time of listing, that if the bank account, of which they were sharing details, was ‘updated in the system’. 

A photo of a rough printed form, showing a table.

Standardised form for creating a database for a private bank transfer programme in late 2021. Compared to the earlier table (see above), you can see a more organised and standardised template being used by the union (Photo: Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union)

What do you mean by ‘bank account was updated’ or ‘updated in the system’?

RC: I say it is ‘updated’ when a bank account is linked to one’s aadhar card. Some accounts were linked, and some were not, but in the first phase of this work we didn’t think of verifying this. Another issue was that the bank account belonged to the worker but the aadhar card details were of another family member (mostly of the husband). We did not anticipate that we would have to check and verify these details and neither did anyone warn us about this. We have never been in this situation before and so we did not have a system to do this.

Once the transfers are attempted and then when we check if the workers received this amount or not, that is when we learn if the details were adequate. Around 2,500-3,000 workers, of the 7,000 in the list, received the cash transfers. I do not remember the exact number. We learnt about these issues on our own. When we approached the government with our concern about the transfers that did not take place, they could not or did not offer any advice or help. They said that it was us who created the list and they only used that to make the transfers, so if we wanted to see why some of them did not go through we should look at the lists again.

We did this exercise throughout Jaipur. We thought this would help the workers in distress get some financial support and relief. A few of these workers also had someone in the family receive direct bank transfers as relief from in lieu of other entitlements: a 1,000 rupees transfer to migrants, a 2,500 rupees transfer to construction workers registered under the Building and Construction Workers’ Board. Workers who had a Jan-Dhan account also received 500 rupees every month for three months from the central government (during the initial months of COVID-19 lockdown) and 1,000 rupees for a month from the Rajasthan state government.

For someone who may not know anything about this, could you please share the different sources of cash transfers and what were the respective entitlements for each of them that workers could receive in the first wave of lockdown?

RC: During the first phase of lockdowns there was a 500 rupee transfer to Jan-Dhan accounts for three months by the central government, there was a one-time 2,500 rupee transfer to construction workers from the state government via BOCW Board, there was the 1,000 rupee transfer to migrant workers and 2,000 rupee transfer to informal workers from the labor department of Rajasthan government.

During the second wave and second phase of lockdowns in 2021, the list of workers from the database we created in 2020 who’d received a transfer received it again. This time it was a one-time sum of 1,000 rupees. The meeting I mentioned earlier was in April 2020. We sent the list of 7,000 workers in June, and the transfers took place in July or August. But the second time they sent the cash transfers to the same workers, in 2021, there was no new process to create a list or add new names to the list.

Details of direct bank transfer programmes that domestic workers could access in Jaipur, Rajasthan

Institution Amount (Rs.) Frequency Phase Source of funds Coverage among domestic workers Criteria
Central government 500  Three months One Central government None Jan Dhan account holders
State government (labour department) 1,000 One time One State government None Migrant workers
State government 2,500 One time One BOCW None Constructions workers registered with BOCW
State government (labour department) 2,500 One time One State government 2,500-plus Informal workers
State government (labour department) 1,000 One time Two State government 2,500-plus Informal workers
Non-state (philanthropy via NGO) 5,000 One time Two Philanthropy 1,160 'Vulnerable' relied on the union's identification
Non-state (philanthropy via NGO) 2,000 One time Two Philanthropy 200-plus 'Those in need'
Non-state (via labour union) 7,500 One-time Two International workers' solidarity 50 Age 60-plus

In your judgement, did the state government honestly try to make the transfers to the entire list of workers that you shared with them?

RC: Yes, they said they have received our list and have made an attempt to make bank transfers to all of the accounts. However, when we raised the issue that many of the workers hadn’t received any transfers to their accounts, they did not show any interest to pursue this gap or resolve this issue.

So this was the union's finding and analysis that only a subset of the list received transfers because there were issues with the information provided in the database?

RC: Yes. We received no warning that these things could happen, we had no way to verify this before a transfer was attempted, and we also did not get a second chance to rectify the errors.

The very first form or template that you were using to create the database, did the government share it with you or advise you on it?

RC: No. In the meeting with the government (mentioned earlier) it was collectively discussed and decided that we must have certain details for a bank transfer. Then we made our own forms to collect these details. We shared the image (and later a spreadsheet) of these forms in all our areas, the area leaders put them to use to make the lists. We collected all the lists and sent it back to the government in a spreadsheet.

So it was collectively decided. Do you think there was a gap in understanding what the form was really asking for and how the database will be used by the area leaders and volunteers?

RC: Yes, there was an issue there. The workers thought that being on the list would make them more likely to receive the relief (cash transfer). So even when she did not have a bank account she shared her husband’s account number, or of someone else in the family, without explicitly telling the person filling the form that they were doing so.

There are several cases still of women who do not have their accounts. Then, when asked for the aadhar number they shared their own, instead of sharing the aadhar number of the account holder. But for the database it was required that it belongs to the account holder, and so this created several errors. The workers were only doing this because they were in need of the relief and wanted to enlist for the bank transfer. So I’d say there were errors on both sides (workers, union, government).

Since this was to be done during the lockdown, the task of making the lists was done by the community members/workers themselves, right?

RC: Yes 

When done in this manner, which can also be the requirement of the situation, this is a time consuming task which takes a lot of work. What were the experiences of doing this for those who were doing the actual work?

RC: This was during the phase of the lockdown when one was looking for any source of support and relief. During the meeting with the union members when we were planning how to create these lists and train them, we asked them to get the help of their sons and daughters. The children could help them with writing in case they didn’t know how to, to carry on the task. The children had their classes on hold during this period, so they had the time, they were eager to be busy and have a reason to go about, and they were also motivated to facilitate relief in the community – as they could see that people were struggling.

As we couldn’t travel to the several areas under lockdown, we encouraged them to support us in this task. We told them how to do it, and corrected the errors in the initial drafts over WhatsApp. There was a sentiment among all of us that we want to do what we can to help our community (samuday) and to expand the reach of relief.

Due to this sentiment, many people joined our work during this time: children, husbands, families, neighbours of domestic workers. I am not talking about a few exceptional cases here, this was in large numbers. Some women who were not workers but were very vulnerable were also included in the lists since they had no separate additional relief like these workers.

Did you have any members or non-members volunteer for doing some of these tasks who may not have done any such union work before?

RC: Yes, there were actually two kinds of new associations. Firstly, some children and husbands of our member-workers  joined our efforts who had never been part of union work or similar work before. Secondly, younger women who are literate and some who may not be literate, also joined in. Many of them knew of the union through their neighbours but did not come to the meetings or did not speak a lot or participate in the meetings – they came forward to help with the lists and also decided to participate in union meetings more after this episode.

Do you think because of the nature of this work, which is writing down all the details in a pre-decided template, women who were literate and knew how to write were participating more than the others? 

RC: No, I don’t think that happened. Women who don’t know how to write asked someone in their family who knows how to to help them with it as everyone was home during this period. They were taking help from someone else to do it, but many such women were taking the responsibility of making these lists.

"Nirbhar thi, par zimmadari li” (They required support to execute it, but they took the responsibility of the overall work)

The details that you were getting from the different areas in the pre-decided template, in what form were you getting them? Were they sending you photos of it or typing it out (spreadsheets, word files, pictures, print outs etc)?

RC: No, no one was sending it on the computer or typing it out, maybe there were one or two such instances. Mostly people were making these lists in notebooks – some had their diaries they maintained for union work, some bought them, some borrowed the notebook from their kids who were not going to schools then. Some had printed the template and then photocopied it, but then that turned out to be costly over time because the lists kept getting longer. They’d then make a table in their notebooks and later send photos of these on WhatsApp.

But you sent these to the government as a spreadsheet, then what was the process of digitising them and how long did that take?

RC: B [anonymised] was helping us, he digitised (data entry) all of them.

He did all 7,000 entries by himself? That is at least 233 hours of work if we take a conservative estimate of two minutes per entry!

RC: He was the key person and he had some help at his office. And all the lists did not come at once, right? Each day we’d collect details for 100-200 workers.  He’d get them digitised that day. Later we were sending him some entries in a spreadsheet, so he was only verifying and correcting them.

What was the reason that no one from the union could pick this task? Was it a matter of time, resource or skill?

RC: No, it was definitely a matter of time, but not just that. He is very closely associated with the union and he was helping us out at that time in many ways. So when this task came up he volunteered to take responsibility for it. During the lockdown his office had doubled up as our office space because it was convenient due to its central location during the phase of limited mobility. He already had a laptop and extra computers, and we had arranged to send printers and some other office materials to his home.

We needed one person to take charge, and he is quick at typing in English. We had our responsibilities to look over the field and coordinate the work there. And it wasn’t possible for so many people to type [not everyone in the union committee had a personal laptop or computer]. We would collect from the field and send it to B. Later we were also trying out to start some data entry in spreadsheets on our mobile. B was maintaining the full list.

While we were coordinating the lists with the workers, H was coordinating with the government for sending adequate lists to them. If there were any errors, if the rules were changing about whom to include in the list, and so on.

How did the women who did not get the cash transfers respond to it? Did it affect trust in the union?

RC: They were of course disappointed. Some said ‘those who don't go to meetings regularly got the transfers but we, who go to the meetings regularly did not get any’. Some said it was a waste of time to give their own details and collect it from others if this was the final outcome. But then we’d try to learn why so many transfers were unsuccessful, asking them about the details they provided, tell them what went wrong and then they would understand it.

Some of the fault was within us. We are no experts in this work – there were errors while noting down the details. We could have verified IFSC codes, some passbooks were very old to be sure of the details. We could have emphasised that the bank details and aadhar number must belong to the same person. We told them these things, some were understanding of it and some were not. They could also see that we did not miss anyone who was listed while distributing ration (food relief), which was a hand-to-hand affair. But the cash transfers were initiated by the bank and so it was beyond the union's control to make sure everyone on the lists gets it.

Was it a difficult task to manage this disappointment? Do you still hear of it in your meetings or other interactions?

RC: Yes, it definitely takes a lot of time and effort to manage this. Every time we’d go to the field we'd be surrounded by workers who did not get the transfers despite sharing their details for the list. Then you have to understand their concern and explain to them why it happened. I’d say now it has fully subsided.

Did it affect trust or relationships permanently? 

RC: No, because those who did not get transfers certainly got food relief in the time of need to meet some requirements. In my knowledge there has been no lasting loss of trust in the union.

How was it being decided whom to include in the list, and whom not to?

RC: Government had said that the criteria for receiving cash transfers was that one must be an informal worker or a migrant. So most of the women the union works with fit both criteria, and all fit one criteria.

What if one was a worker in the informal sector but not a migrant?

Among Rajasthani women we were only listing those who work as domestic workers, not everyone living in the informal settlements. If we didn’t follow a strict criteria then the domestic worker would be left out. If someone was not living on rent, then we knew they did not have to pay the rent so we would not include them. Some women were saying they were working when in reality they were not, so we had to stay alert. But there were some women who were in special need, say they were pregnant or needed medical care, so we included them.

Who was making this decision and when? Were it the area leaders themselves, or were they in consultation for each of the unique cases with you?

RC: First we had a discussion among ourselves at the union office, and it was here that we decided that we must give priority to domestic workers in our role as a union of domestic workers. It was an easy decision too as most domestic workers are also migrant workers here. So when we were then briefing our area leaders we shared this decision with them – that they should also prioritise finding and listing domestic workers and only then if they had more time they must understand the unique situation of women they come across who need relief.

A man sits a table with lots of stacked paperwork.

Documentation in the union office from rapid surveys undertaken during 2020. The rapid surveys were done for various state and non-state institutions to identify need and create databases that facilitated relief (Photo: Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union)

So after a point you were leaning on your trust in the area leaders?

RC: Absolutely, we had to trust them to follow the decision. There were so many names, it is not feasible to check each of the names.

There is also the question about the adequacy of the entitlement itself. So the amount of these individual transfers from the governments – rupees 500, 1,000, 2,000, 2,500 – from your interactions on the ground do you assess them to be adequate or inadequate? What kind of relief could this enable?

RC: No, this wasn’t enough. This was too little. If we talk about that period, what would a worker do with Rs. 2,000? You cannot pay a month’s rent, you cannot buy milk and vegetables for one whole month, you cannot buy ration for an entire month for the house. If they paid Rs. 2,000 every month for three months, then it would have covered some significant expenses overall. But a one-time transfer of Rs. 2,000 was too little. It is the same for rupees 1,000, 1,500, or 2,500 – which were all one-time transfers. The three-time transfer was itself even lower at Rs. 500.

So, say we have to think of a more meaningful sum, would you say a one-time Rs. 6,000 cash transfer would be a meaningful sum in such a situation?

RC: Yes, at least 6,000 rupees was essential. At the time workers had not received their monthly income and their funds and ration (food stocks at home) were nearing end as it was the end of the month. Once the lockdown was put in place, some employers had begun to refuse to pay for the coming months or refused to pay before they felt it was safe to allow them to come home even to collect the income for March. The need of the moment was to substitute the loss of monthly income, and transfer an amount that could cover the essential monthly expenses (including rent).

When we spoke about the adequacy of the amount of cash transfers with the large group here in August, many held similar opinions but Kavita (who is a domestic worker herself) also added that, while it may not be enough, it was not nothing. She said: “500 rupees meant a lot in that period and could buy some things at least”.

RC: Yes, when there is not even enough milk to make a cup of tea, 500 rupees allows you to make that cup of tea. It will be enough for a few days, but we are speaking in totality and not of a make-do solution for a day or few. If there are two kids or five people in a family, 500 rupees is surely not enough as relief for even a week or two.

Going back to that first meeting with the collector you mentioned earlier, can you tell us how that decision came to be, that migrant workers will receive a one-time cash transfer of 2,000 rupees, including domestic workers?

RC: About 7-8 days after the lockdown there was a large gathering of people’s organisations in Jaipur/Rajasthan. It was decided in the meeting that they’ll reach out to the district collector to extend relief to informal workers and migrant workers, among other demands. This process started there. We were anticipating the lockdown and the effect it would have on people's lives, so we had already started preparing for it.

Can you tell us if the government had already decided to give Rs. 2,000 as relief to workers and migrants, and because H was present in the meeting domestic workers were added to the list of occupations or was the gathering instrumental in creating the entitlement itself?

RC: State wasn’t thinking about this. It was people’s organisations and movements that brought the state's attention to the plight of workers and migrants in the informal sector in the city. They asked for targeted relief for these workers and cash transfers was suggested as one of the few things as it was already a mode of relief that had been initiated for some databases.

What was instrumental to convince the state at that point of time was the presence of the network of people’s organisations and their word on the situation enough by itself or did they seek out other forms of evidence to prove their word?

RC: When I said they talked to the state, they were talking to the labour department and the labour court. These institutions and people know the situation of workers. They also know of the people’s organisations here, like they know that H works with the construction workers, they know of the Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union, and many other such organisations. When everyone presented their needs for the workers and migrants together, the labour department heard them out, they knew that these people and organisations know what they are talking about. They also know that there are many informal workers in the city but yes, the organisations helped the case by sharing the scale of their presence and distress, and taking the demand to the department.

Why did no one from the union join H at the meeting? 

RC: At the time of the lockdown one needed special permission to move in the city. H had already taken that permission. We trusted him to represent the interests of the domestic workers and the union because of our association.  He is on good terms with the labour department and has a long association with the network of people’s organisations in Jaipur and Rajasthan as well. We were working every minute in those early days, taking distress calls or making calls to know the situation. So if one person can effectively take responsibility there was no need for more.

You saw how it panned out. Does the union think that such direct bank transfers should become a regular entitlement or that it be ready to be invoked when there is any crisis? If yes, what situations do you anticipate where this will be useful or what purposes would it be useful as a regular entitlement? Would the union list direct bank transfers as a demand under its charter of demands?

RC: Absolutely. If there is an accident or hazard like this, cash transfers should be invoked. But I think it shouldn’t have the necessary condition of having an operational bank account. If it is so, then the government should work towards a registration system, a system where there is a database and bank accounts for all workers, something akin to e-shram – but it should also ensure everyone has an operational bank account.

Right now many workers are left out if only the existing lists are used or only direct bank transfers are used – many women workers are left out if only BOCW lists are used. We try to include women and domestic workers, but when we try to build lists of domestic workers in response to a crisis we cannot reach everyone in a limited time and with limited resources with the methods we can use. Many workers were excluded.

And if we talk about the condition for having bank accounts – the state had a good initiative to open bank accounts for women who do not have one through the Jan Dhan programme – but there are still gaps in coverage and even those who had a bank account necessarily did not have an operational bank account. So the government should be prepared for a situation like this, have a robust registration process. They could also allow workers with registered membership-based organisations to identify and register workers in such databases based on the membership itself as a criteria – otherwise many workers get excluded. A robust preparation in terms of a database should be necessary for timely response and for minimising exclusions.

In what likely situations would workers need such transfers? We can say there are already the pension or conditional maternity entitlements.

RC: There is always need for extra cash in special situations. I think it could be a key medium for social security. Say, if a woman is pregnant and she would like to take off from work or is forced to take off, or if a woman meets with an unexpected accident and cannot continue to work for a while.

Everyone has seen during COVID-19 that domestic workers do not get paid if they cannot go to work. Elderly people who rely on this work to run their household can benefit from this in case of unexpected health events. There can be other situations where she loses her work where this can be handy, or it allows her to stand down against exploitative terms and refuse to work even for a few months – isn’t that the meaning of social security or social protection? It cannot only be for some risks.

Can you tell us how these women or these households spent the cash transfers that they received?

RC: I remember this one woman from Murlipura who mentioned that the money was transferred to her at a time when there was nothing at home, not even enough to buy milk for her child, which she considered necessary. She immediately utilised it to buy milk that month and other essential food. There were many who utilised it for essential needs they had kept on hold such as medicines, vegetables or other nutritious foods. There was no one who did not put that money to use immediately, so there was definitely a very urgent need. One cannot say it wasn’t useful. It wasn’t sufficient but it was necessary. It was a partial relief.

Who do you think should be responsible for making the lists? Should it be for worker’s unions like yours or should it be the government's responsibility and work?

RC: See this isn’t and shouldn’t be a union responsibility to make the lists for the government programmes. The government, say the collector for Jaipur, should have information about who lives here, who works in what jobs and for how long. There must be legislation to ensure registration of every worker, even from the informal and unorganised sectors.

Now if a city or a sector doesn’t have a worker’s union, will the government not work for those workers in those cities? A union can support if required, it is working for the workers, but it should be government responsibility and they should seek out the union’s help in particular matters when required. Union has its own responsibilities and it does its own work – it cannot take on government work. A union works with very few resources.

Were there any other challenges while doing the listing for this kind of work?

RC: There were many. Once we shared the template with members on the ground, they had to make copies of it. They approached the e-mitra outlets for it who overcharged quite a bit. Many charged 10 rupees for a page, and every person required at least 20-30 sheets of it. 200-300 rupees is a considerable sum for the members and the community at such a time. Women tried to collect it locally, reaching out to others to contribute 10 rupees each.

The other concern was looking for a phone that can take legible photos of the completed forms and send it over the internet/WhatsApp to us. Not everyone who is active and effective on ground is well resourced. Then there was hesitation among many to share details of their bank account, worrying that it may be ill-used to charge them without notice. Or that if the government could see they had any savings then they wouldn’t receive any immediate help and be expected to use their long-term savings. There were also concerns among some that what if the union takes money from the account.

But we keep talking to our area leaders, ask them to share with us the concerns arising on the field, the questions they get, and then we guide them to clarify them and overcome them. Many times they can help clarify these things themselves.

When you take up work such as these, the union and the area leaders can get associated with government schemes and benefits. People may think that being part of the union would mean being closer to such benefits. Does it disrupt your core work, how do you manage it?

RC: There were two sides to it. Because we facilitated cash transfers to workers from government programmes and private institutions, it created a trust in workers that the union could do something like this during a difficult time. But there is also a sentiment that being part of the union has many direct benefits such as cash transfers.

We face an issue especially from new members who joined during COVID-19, or after it, who think that that was the usual role of the union, or they expect to receive direct benefits like that on joining. They bring their details and request us to list them for the ‘cash transfer’, and then we explain to them that that was a relief measure particularly for that period of time. That if there are any government programs that can benefit them we’ll inform them of it, but this union isn’t for greed or for handing out money, that we did it during lockdown because people were not getting any income and were struggling to meet basic needs.

Union is there to find collective solutions. Once we share these details it clears the misunderstanding, it is not something unsurpassable. 

On non-state actors

Until now we have talked about the state-sponsored cash relief programmes. Could you tell us more about the non-state cash relief initiatives during 2020 or 2021 and the union’s role in it?

RC: In our meetings we agreed that there was a need for financial support. We identified that elderly workers, workers with very young children, and workers who were the only earning member of the family were in serious need. Getting standard food provisions from relief kits and the public distribution system (PDS) was not enough as families also required some cash to buy vegetables and milk to complete their meals. Workers weren’t ready for privation to the point of reducing diet to only the food provisions available in limited ration kits, some nutrition was seen as non-negotiable.

Some organisations reached out to us with resources, and different organisations decided to offer different quantum: there was a transfer of Rs. 5,000 to 1,165 workers, Rs. 2,000 to 100 workers, and Rs. 7,500 to 50 workers. These organisations knew domestic workers were vulnerable and would like to reach them, and here the role of the union was key. 

Union could identify the more vulnerable within domestic workers and ensure the relief was reaching those who were in critical need of it. This was also a difficult role as due to limited resources the cash transfers couldn’t be extended to as many people as were in need, and thus we had to select a few. We work with them and we couldn’t go ahead with arbitrary rationale to select a few. We prioritised what kind of workers we would identify. Based on our interactions and knowing the situation on the field we knew some of the common conditions of the most vulnerable groups: elderly women, widowed women, widowed women with young children, households that had no earning members or they had taken severely ill were some of them. 

Then we made lists with the essential details like name, bank account, IFSC code, Aadhaar number and a few other details like address and phone number to reach out to the same people again. Different institutions can have different requirements in terms of verification of payment, so we take the address and phone number in case we have to reach them again for verification of transfer. Some institutions could also be required to show that other details like marital status or primary occupation – so depending on the terms of the institution or the the funder whom they are answerable to we were required to list additional details and verification.

From our experience in 2020 we knew that there can be several errors in noting down so many alpha-numeric codes for Aadhar, Bank, and IFSC numbers – so we made sure we collected a photocopy of the original documents so one could verify them centrally. This added considerable work but what other way could there be to be sure of the list? We don’t have access to any database.

Another consideration was to cover the geography of our membership as much as possible. We are active in more than 50 neighbourhoods and we tried our best to spread the lists across these geographies.

A map of Jaipur, India with a series of dots, concentrated near the centre

A map showing the union's decentralised city-wide identification exercise for its direct bank transfer programme (Map: Amruth Kiran, IIHS)

Despite so many steps we faced issues with failed transactions, especially with larger lists. Say, many who were listed for the 2,000-rupee transfer for 100 people didn’t receive it due to some error in listing. Similarly we have faced issues of error in IFSC code, receiving old bank account numbers, receiving dormant bank accounts, and other unidentified issues in the transfer of 5,000 rupee to 1,165 people. It is not easy to identify the gap even for the institution that is making the transfers – they have to wait for the bank to share with them a list of successful transactions. They can only process a few hundred at a time for this update – we don’t know what happens at their end.

But we are certain the 50 elderly workers who were meant to receive 7,500 received it successfully. This transfer was from domestic workers’ bonus and pension earnings in another country. They give a share of it to a collective, which then passes it onto others in need. Even here those who received it in turn gave back 1,500 from it to the union and then the union could send it forward to another 50 workers.

You mentioned that when institutions came forward to financially support through direct bank transfers they required additional information. What was this information and was it different for different institutions?

RC: Yes, it was different. One required their marital status and overall household employment status during lockdown, and the other required their migrant status or their ages. It depended on their eligibility criteria, which were based on the objectives or clauses tied to the source money. What they required as proof of transfer was also different. One asked us only to show an entry in the passbook, another one asked for their union card number and their signature on a proof of receipt. The collective that transferred to the elderly didn't ask for any such proof. 

Do these organisations verify whom you have identified based on the eligibility criteria?

RC: Those who were giving support for elderly women (above 59 years of age) verified the age through Aadhar card. This was only for 50 members. We shared the aadhar number with them. 

There seem to be several additional steps in identification, verification, receipt confirmation… over and above the necessary documentation for bank transfer. Without adequate support they are done by the union in the best way possible. But even then they seem to be time and resource consuming. How much time do these steps take, say if you take me through the process for one household?

RC: It takes a lot of time. In many instances it takes more than a day to list one household/worker properly. They may not have a photo ready, or they may not have the time to take out the necessary documentation. There were many challenges too. To carefully note down the many codes and numbers, to carry their original documents to the nearest photocopy shop and then return it to them. We couldn’t ask them to spend money on photocopy at that time – the shops were charging higher than usual, about Rs. 10 for a page.

But we are never only doing this alone – we would combine other ground activities with it. If we know we are visiting an area the next day, we would try to organise a few women through direct phone calls and local area coordinators, we would request them to be ready with the details and the documents. It requires a lot of coordination and explanation. We also know these places well so we can navigate and optimise our routes. However there are some very large areas where it can be difficult.

When the union is taking responsibility for making these lists, do you think there is the possibility that those who are already linked to the union are more visible and there is less scope for new workers to be identified?

RC: I don’t think so, we try to be open. When we began this work we had discussed in the meeting that this would be open to all domestic workers – whether they come to meetings regularly or at all will not be a reason to keep someone out of it. We had asked area leaders and we ourselves asked around if there were any domestic workers apart from the houses that we already identified from previous acquaintances. We tried to have these checks.

Being on the ground for so many years you now have a sense of who are the households that are more vulnerable than others. Would you say some of these households couldn't be linked to any of the cash transfer programmes?

RC: Yes.

Who would they be?

RC: There were many elders who work as domestic workers and come to the meetings as well but they either didn’t have bank accounts or aadhaar card. Some of them had defunct bank accounts because they never used it. We couldn’t link them to any cash transfer programme because all of them were direct bank transfers. The institutions weren’t allowed to pay cash.

A map of Jaipur, India with a series of dots in green and blue, concentrated near the centre

One of the criteria for identifying 'vulnerable' domestic workers and households was if the domestic worker was the sole earner in the household (Map: Amruth Kiran, IIHS)

What were the expenses for which the workers were using this financial support the most?

RC: Other additional food items over the very basic food provisions like that in ration kits. They were also spent on house rent, repaying loans for food provisions and other reasons. Some elderly women were not keen to go back to work due to the risks and they used it to meet subsistence for some more weeks. I know a few women who used it to pay the school fees. Another woman was very relieved to pay back the loan from her employer as she had to leave that employer’s work and couldn’t find another. She was worried how she would repay the advance she had taken a while back, worrying for her reputation and employer’s next steps.

What was your experience as a union working with other non-state actors?

RC: Working with the organisation which extended Rs. 7,500 to 50 workers was good as it did not involve many formalities. They requested some proof of receipt, so we either took photos of the messages from the bank or of the passbook entry which declared transfer of funds. The program where we are giving it to 1,165 workers, it has taken a really long time as the organisation decided to only transfer 200 at a time, and it was the largest list we have worked with among non-state programmes.

In such a situation the workers start asking questions, sometimes it is hard to trace them back after some months have passed to confirm receipt. There have been a few challenges with it; it is a much larger number, it is spread throughout Jaipur and there are many kinds of workers listed under it (unlike having only elderly workers). The other only had 50 and all elderly women.

When we spoke about the union's role in government-led cash transfer programmes, you said the union believes that the union's role isn’t in listing, or listing directly and listing alone, that the union has other objectives and activities. I have the same question for you but regarding the private sector. If there are a lot of sources directed to private institutions for cash transfer programmes, what do you think of such a move and what would be the union's role in it?

RC: If non-state private organisations are doing cash transfer programmes that is all right, but they may not know who is in need of it. How will they identify? The organisations on ground like our union know how to identify due to our long term and grounded engagement (in the absence of any other database or methods).

Further the workers may not trust new faces like they trust the union. There are several minor follow-ups required to do these things well which is difficult if there is not a dedicated person on ground who knows it well. But this work takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of care to detail. The other activities of the union take a hit because of it.

Would the logistics be different if there was the option for direct cash transfer in hand? 

RC: If there was cash transfer in hand, it would be a lot more convenient I think. Especially given the limitations with people’s link to banks and the state of databases. We could set up a desk and ask people to come with documents like the Aadhar, they would collect the cash and sign the receipt at the desk. In one meeting we could identify, list, verify, and confirm the transaction.

What takes months with direct bank transfers, and multiple steps and stages, could be done in a day’s time and one-time interaction. It would also result in fewer exclusions and be able to cover a much wider population. Many people even with Jan Dhan accounts couldn’t receive a direct bank transfer as the accounts are no longer active due to lack of transactions, but they were unaware of it.

One reason against direct cash transfer in hand is due to the possibilities of leakages and corruption. Can you think of any other way out of the challenges of direct bank transfers – which would be more aligned to people’s actual financial infrastructure and practices? Some countries, like Zimbabwe for example, give out food vouchers or mobile money which people could spend directly at particular types of stores to buy food provisions from the market. While the PDS remains effective but limited in variety – do you think this is a way worth adding to the existing modes of delivery?

RC: Absolutely. During the lockdown one of the early methods for food relief was to transfer money via UPI or PayTM to the shopkeeper, who would hand over the food provisions to the worker. The households were in strict need of cash for many reasons and living in privation, so when there was direct bank transfer it wasn’t easy to manage that amount within the home. A medical need or an urgent repayment could delay expense on food. 

People are also averse to banking – they don’t want to keep money in the bank for too long. They fear that there are some charges they don’t share about, and then at regular intervals keep charging it to the account. The amount these women keep in the bank is a small amount – it doesn’t meet the minimum balance at many times and charges of even Rs. 10 to 100 is a large sum proportionately. We ask them to print passbook entries so we can tell them what these charges are – there is not enough literacy to read and understand these transactions.

Should social protection policy have direct bank transfers as of its key modes like PDS? If yes, what kinds of risks and should it be used for?

RC: Yes, if this becomes a part of the policy in normal times it’ll be good. Currently there are programmes that use this mode but they all require separate registration and have varying eligibility criteria. Informal workers, as we know, are excluded from work-based social protection. However there are general welfare programmes for vulnerable population groups. But we have seen over the years that many women get excluded from these programmes for varying reasons, being migrant and vulnerable but not destitute are two critical reasons.

Therefore we as a union think that registration of domestic workers and linking that to social protection against different risks over the lifecycle – such as maternity benefits up to two children, coverage for health and accident risks, pension and free medicines at elderly age, can be an effective way to cover the social protection for this group, and direct bank transfers can be a key mode for this if it is easy for governance. If one registration and bank account is linked to several and key social protection programmes then there is ground for broad-based movement and organising to link workers to bank accounts more robustly.

These needn’t be free, they can take contributions from workers and employers. But the financial planning and risks are not one’s own responsibility. The government has initiated such programmes, albeit with its own independent registration process, but they couldn’t sustain and they were changed to different schemes. People get confused and exhausted from going through it again and again. There is a lot of gap in information and understanding, and the way it is organised now it is very difficult to fill this gap. The common man, the worker, does not have the time to follow up on the many general programmes that keep shifting form, entitlement, names or require new registration.

Thank you for the interview, Rama. 

The union had been responding throughout the COVID-19 crisis to the requirements of their members in many ways, extending state relief measures to domestic workers, generating and aggregating relief from non-state sources, or simply being at the other end of the phone to lend an ear. One of its key roles was to represent domestic worker’s interest with the state as well as in non-state networks. Without this representation many who could access some form of state and non-state relief would have been excluded.

It asserts that the COVID-19 crisis is not decidedly over, the medium-term impacts can still be seen in employment conditions, rates of work and bargaining powers. Their interests do not end at relief measures, they want to build resilience over the medium and long term and they see strengthening social protection systems that are also inclusive of domestic workers as one of the routes to do so.



Head and shoulders photo of Antara Rai Chowdhury.

Antara Rai Chowdhury, senior associate, School of Human Development at Indian Institute for Human Settlements