Covid-19 has visibilised care work and brought attention to it through corporations’ and philanthropies’ campaigns. Feminists have pointed out various ways in which expressing gratitude about care allows accumulation of legitimacy to the one expressing gratitude but does not ensure compensation and valuation of care work. In this way, ‘carewashing’ poses a problem. In India, after the Indian Prime Minister’s address to express gratitude to front line workers by lighting lamps, clapping and banging plates , expressions of gratitude as care became ‘viral.’ Online, domestic work received unprecedented attention. There are videos of Hindi movie actors and social media influencers doing chores or having candid interactions with their live-in domestic workers. Other users post tips on how to manage time, or reflections on changing gender norms as more men contribute to household work.
Since the nationwide lockdown beginning on March 24, 2020, a large majority of domestic workers have either lost their jobs or have not received salaries. The lockdown has had adverse implications on domestic workers’ household consumption and has forced some to borrow money from employers. Those who returned from cities to their villages as part of the migrant worker exodus are facing trouble accessing the public distribution system for subsidised grains. As states begin to ease lockdown and fatigue with doing one’s domestic chores oneself begins to set in, employers are paying large sums of money to quarantine domestic workers in private hotels in a bid to bring them back into their households. Historically, such moments of crises in social reproduction have visiblised care work and made employers long for care workers, but this has not translated into greater rights for workers.
In this article, we examine comedic content about domestic work and workers posted on social media platforms during the pandemic. In this content employers play themselves and employees so we analyse this to understand how humour online is used to maintain social distance from the virus and employers’ responsibility. We draw from our previous content analyses of 21 such comedic videos uploaded to YouTube and Facebook to understand continuities and changes from earlier tropes of employers’ representation.
During the pandemic, there has been dilution of labour laws in various states and in the absence of government regulation, workers’ rights have been left to employers’ discretion. The government has only encouraged employers to care for workers and secure their rights. In our analysis of employers’ jokes online, we were compelled to notice employers’ anxiety to show care and attempts to find their true north. Our aim is not to prescribe an employers’ code of conduct in this essay. Instead we examine employer’s online expressions of gratitude and empathy towards working class domestic workers and ask how it might translate in terms of providing job security, salary and working conditions.
Longing for the domestic worker
Along with an acknowledgement of the difficulty of domestic work, there is an expression of longing for domestic workers. This longing alludes to the relationship between the employer and domestic worker as a romantic rather than professional one. In the authors’ previous work on the portrayal of domestic work and workers in comedic content on YouTube and Facebook, they found such a presentation was useful in denying the employer-employee relationship. The processes of firing and hiring for instance, were depicted in ways similar to finding a romantic partner and breaking up with them, several videos refer to firing as a ‘breakup.’ Even the interaction between the employer-employee is shown to be full of suspicion associated with jealous lovers:
Domestic worker: “Every bai gets late once in a while. Tell me the truth, it’s because of that Kamla, right? I had seen her missed call on your phone.”
Employer: “Do you check my phone?”
Domestic worker: “I happened to see it when you handed it to me to charge it.”
This trope of romanticising the relationship continued after the pandemic since videos featured romantic songs like ‘tumko dekha toh ye khayal aaya..zindagi dhoop, tum ghana saaya’ (when I saw you I thought you were a restful shadow in the harsh sunshine of life) as soundtrack to a dream sequence involving the return of the domestic worker.
The absence of the domestic worker during lockdown and her eventual return is not an ordinary longing but a crucial, milestone moment for the household. This was evident in a TikTok video (see below) welcoming the domestic workers in the future after the lockdown by an ‘aarti’, a Hindu worship ritual that involves circular motion of a lamp often in a plate with other objects in front of a deity. The aarti is sometimes a way of showering loving care to family members as they embark on or return from situations that are understood to be crucial and/ risky.
Certain figures in the household whose workload increased due to the domestic workers’ absence felt this longing the most. The daughter-in-law, for instance, is depicted as having recognised the value of the domestic workers’ labour now:
“Now we have realised that our didi, the domestic workers are the ones who come handy..during this lockdown, we learnt that they are God’s second avatar…we’ve understood clearly that we have got to respect them.” 
Lockdown as a vacation for the lazy domestic worker
Comedic content about domestic workers has generally portrayed them as manipulative women who bargain hard. They offer packages with different tasks and prices – the fresher package, the middle class package, the North Indian diva package. These hard bargains construct them as nosy workers who can even guess their male employers’ incomes. As nosy and demanding women, these workers are depicted as making excessive demands for WiFi, air conditioning, cold water, juice, two fruits a day, and television. They are also depicted as cutting corners and wasting time when at worksometimes by taking a two hour nap, demanding time off in the afternoon, demanding Saturday as a half day or Sunday as a holiday. 
Employers acknowledged workers’ burden of domestic work during the lockdown but this pre-pandemic construction of a greedy, nosy and lackadaisical ‘nature’ overshadowed the magnitude of the economic stress or the difficulty to practice social distancing in slums or chawls. As a result, domestic workers were depicted as being relaxed during the lockdown:
Now I wake up leisurely, spend time with my husband, cook, sweep-swab for my household and just my own household. Then I watch TV..Yeah, I can’t believe it..there’s a little rest for me because of the lockdown.
The fear of the assertive and aware domestic worker demanding her due and safety appeared in jokes about astronomical demands she could make during the pandemic. This is evident in one video about a domestic worker who demanded 1 lakh rupees (USD 1300 approximately) for sweeping, 2 lakh rupees (USD 2700 approx) for swabbing and 5 lakh rupees (USD 6700 approx) to do the dishes from her employer who requested her to return to work for a day.
The sobering reality faced by domestic workers in the aftermath of the pandemic stands in stark contrast to such representation of them leveraging the pandemic to demand higher salaries. A recent survey of over 2500 domestic workers in Bengaluru revealed that 87% of the workers lost their jobs and 91% have not received salaries since April. Creating comedic content that shows domestic workers demanding such exorbitant amounts mocks their realities during the pandemic and further raises questions about the display of concern by employers.
In May 2020, domestic workers protested the impact of the lockdown on their livelihood in Bengaluru. In this photo, domestic workers are seen wearing masks, sitting at a distance from one another with a poster that reads Domestic Workers Rights Union (in Kannada and English).
Viral displays of care as a substitute for workers’ rights
A central joke in post-pandemic videos has been the depiction of domestic workers as completely unaware of the existence of the virus. This construction of their ignorance in comedic videos is used as an opportunity for mockery and educational intervention by the employers. Such interventions were expressed as care by employers who informed the worker about risks associated with the virus and asked the worker to stay home, and take care while they paid them salaries:
“‘What happened? Did I not work properly? Tell me what happened..why are you firing me?’ She told me to not leave home.. Then she informed me about coronavirus and the lockdown and how this is for my own safety.” 
If workers were aware of the risks without instruction from the employer and concerned about their safety, there was a shift in employers’ benevolence. Aware workers are depicted as manipulative, making excessive demands and unworthy of the employers’ benevolence due to their desire to fleece. Meanwhile, employers’ generosity of refraining from cutting salaries was predicated on their ability – “until you can’t afford it” (jab tak aap afford kar sakte hai) – which they calculate for and by themselves. Much like a neoliberal government, employers in these comedic videos leave workers’ rights to the vagaries of their own moral compasses.
Viral displays of care for domestic workers visibilise the value of care. But an analysis of these displays reveals that they continue to undermine workers’ rights as they romanticise the employer-employee relationship and underestimate the devastating economic and health impacts of the pandemic on workers due to assumptions about their nosy, greedy and lazy ‘nature.’ They serve to absolve employers when the state has left workers rights to the employers’ moral compass.
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Simiran Lalvani and Sanjana Santosh
Simiran Lalvani is an independent researcher who will commence doctoral studies October 2020 at the University of Oxford as a Felix Scholar. She has previously engaged in research studying the ‘future of work’ through the case of matrimonial matchmakers and astrologers at Microsoft Research, and the ‘Mapping Digital Labour in India’ study examining app-based food delivery work and workers at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS).
Sanjana Santosh is an independent researcher in the domain of health and development, currently working as a WHO-SEARO Research Fellow on the topic of Midwifery in Indian Public Health System. She has a Masters in Development Studies from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.