Altered Routines, Diminished Solidarity and Invisibility: The Experience of Live-in ‘Child Nurses’ During the Pandemic

My telephone interview with Kusum Kullu (name changed) began a little after eleven at night. She is one of the women care workers I have been studying as part of my doctoral research. In normal times I would have been interviewing her on a Sunday afternoon in the basement of a posh school in Central Delhi, the regular, shared space for solidarity gatherings of Adivasi women migrants from Jharkhand and neighbouring states in India, who are engaged in low paid care work.[1]  Courtesy of COVID-19, we find ourselves in altered work time-space. Altered work times and spaces have brought back a focus on definitions of work and the feminist critiques. Care work includes a plethora of jobs; here, I focus on the condition of live-in child carers, professionally called ‘child nurses’, commonly known as ‘nannies’ outside India. The primary role of these workers is looking after children and performing tasks such as feeding, bathing, bedtime, yet they may also cook and clean. There exists a thin boundary between domestic workers and home nurses, these two professions tend to overlap in the Indian context.[2] This is important to understand as I sketch the condition of live-in nannies in Delhi in the pandemic, focusing on definitions of work time, routines, invisibility and solidarity.

Kusum works as a live-in ‘child nurse’ in Delhi. From Sundargah, Odisha, she hopes for things to normalise so that she can go meet her two children, back in her village with her husband.[3] If it were not for the pandemic or the lockdown, Kusum would have travelled home for the dhan ropa (paddy cropping in the monsoons).  Her husband could not manage to do the rice cropping in her absence. The gendered division of labour in farm work in Adivasi societies assigns the task of ropa or cropping to women.  There are many stories of migrant care workers like Kusum in the pandemic.

Working Round the Clock and Altered Routines

The live-in child nurses are considered full-time workers as compared to those who work part-time and live in their own homes.  Full-time accurately depicts the work-time and nature of their work (see also Weeks 2009).[4] To expatiate, these women live within the homes of their employers and work round the clock. They work from early mornings to right before going to bed. This peculiarity of undefined working hours is characteristic of care work.[5] Time has found place in feminist writings on work. While writing about her study of housewives, Ann Oakley suggested that the ‘externally imposed constraints’ aimed towards disciplining of labour in factory work did not exist in case of housework. The housewife, however, had ‘standards’ and ‘routines’ set for herself, which spelled out the ‘work’ to be done (Oakley 1974)[6].

Routines and standards exist for these care workers too. The difference however, is that they are set and assessed by the employers. The live-in workers have primary responsibility as carers. ‘Round the clock presence’ of these women is preferred in households that have young children or aged relatives. Their day begins with preparing the morning tea for the employer and ends with cleaning dishes after dinner. The working hours are therefore ‘defined’ in tandem with the routine of the employers. They ordinarily work for six full days a week, with a Sunday off when they attend the meetings of the solidarity group.

The Coronavirus pandemic has led to changes in their routines and ambiguous working hours. For those who have employers with altered sleep patterns, as is the case with a lot of urban middle class employed in multinational companies, the routine of the house-help has also altered. Some employers who stay up late working from home prefer very later dinners! Plus, the additional sanitising and cleaning of grocery purchases have added to the list of chores. The weekly Sunday rest/ day-off that was previously available has also disappeared, entailing working seven days of the week. 

A photograph from the sit-in strike of women workers of Woolworth in Detroit, USA (1937) demanding shorter working hours (source:

The work relations of these care workers bring back the question of working hours. The demand for shorter working hours has been central to labour movements for decades. According to Weeks (2009), within feminist discourse the demand for shorter working hours was not only a policy demand but a discursive intent towards conceptualising work. The feminist demand for shorter working hours invited recognition of unwaged housework. The ILO identifies improving the working time of domestic workers as the hardest to regulate recognising it as an integral component of achieving decent work for domestic workers.[7] ‘Long or unpredictable periods of “on-call” or “standby” duty, and difficulties in determining how these periods should be measured’ (ILO) are a characteristic feature of these services. Even for countries that do have legislations on working hours, there is difficulty in ensuring implementation of laws given the ‘private’ workspaces.

Isolation and Diminished Solidarity during the Pandemic

March 8, 2020, the day the last gathering of these women workers took place before the lockdown began in India (photo by author).

The body of literature developed in Hochshild’s (1979) concept of care chains highlights how in a globalised context, one sees a pattern in the gender and ethnic composition of care workers.[8] Like elsewhere, in India one finds that care work is dominated by women belonging to certain caste, class, and ethnic groups. Neetha’s (2004) study of domestic workers has shown the crowding of women of specific socio-economic backgrounds in the sector, especially tribal migrants.[9] The live-in child nurses often also belong to tribal communities from states of Central India. Having left their homes and families these women develop solidarity based on a shared sense of identity. This identity rests upon common experience of migration from their places of origin, shared memories, and experience in similar work.

Normally these women would travel to meet their friends on the non-working Sundays. These meetings were important to them, as it is where they met and shared their experiences. The act of eating together and sharing meals also created a sense of collectivity.  Unfortunately, the pandemic has ceased the Sunday gatherings, curtailing further these women’s opportunity for solidarity. None of these women have left their workspaces since the pandemic began. Fearing the virus, most employers have disallowed going out. For over four months they have not stepped out of their workspaces. The lockdown following the coronavirus outbreak has socially distanced these women from their solidarity groups.

Invisibility Continues

Women workers in occupations such as home nursing continue to remain invisible. The capitalist and patriarchal understanding of ‘work’ renders them, like social reproduction itself, entirely invisible. They were certainly missed out of relief packages. Lack of documents such as address proofs restricts their access to ration cards or other benefits. And being locked down in workspaces has only added to the existing isolation in their profession.

It is crucial, now more than ever, to redefine ‘work’ in policy, to allow the inclusion of all forms of paid and unpaid care within the domain of formal work. 


[1] Adivasi (constitutionally given the status of Scheduled Tribes in India) women or women belonging to tribal communities from states of Central India (Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha & others) have for years migrated to enter low paid care work in Indian cities. These women come from one of the most marginalised sections and economically backward regions in the country.  The interviews I reference complement my participant observation research in this area; the women in question are research participants, vis-à-vis whom I occupy a certain position of privilege, yet we also have an important relationship of companionship.

[2] Nurses here refers to home nurses, women who are trained in basic nursing services. They do not hold any qualification or degree in nursing.

[3] Odisha formerly known as Orissa is an Eastern state in India. As per the Indian Census data of 2001, approximately 22 percent of the state’s population belongs to the Scheduled Tribe community, this is about 9.7 percent of the total tribal population in the country. Sundargarh is a district in Odisha.

[4] See Weeks, Kathi (2009), “Hours for What We Will »: Work, Family, and the Movement for Shorter Hours, Feminist Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 101-127


[6] Oakley, Ann. The Sociology of Housework (Reissue). 1st ed., Bristol University Press, 2018. JSTOR, Accessed 2 July 2020.

[7]—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/publication/wcms_230837.pdf Domestic Work Policy Brief: Working Time of Live-in Domestic Workers

[8] see Hochschid, Arlie Russell, 1979, The Managed Heart 

[9] see Neetha, N, 2004, ‘Making of Female Breadwinners’, Review of Women’s Studies, Vol. 39, Issue No. 17

Tagged: #Abuse #Affect #Borders #Child care #Class #Colonialism #Domesticity #Economy #Elder care #Emotional labour #English #Gender #Geopolitics of care #Health care #Housing #Migration #Mutual aid networks #Quarantine #Race #Violence

08 septembre 2020 — Deepali Aparajita Dungdung

Deepali Aparajita Dungdung

Ranchi, India

Deepali Aparajita Dungdung is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her doctoral research concerns migrant care workers from the Chotanagpur region in India. Her research interests include gender, labour, ethnicity, social policy. She blogs at Doing Sociology ( and can be found on Twitter at @deepalee18