"People keep telling me that our government has announced grants for poor individuals like us. So, I check my phone every day to see if any new amount has been deposited in my account. But, so far not a rupee has come to me," said Reshma Devi, a child caretaker who works in Mumbai.
Reshma had gone to visit her family in West Bengal’s Nadia district in March but could not return to Mumbai after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country.
"We barely have any food at home, but that isn't the worst problem," said Devi. "My family lives in a rented house and we have been unable to pay the rent off-late, because, both I and my husband are out of jobs. But, the landlords are not willing to comply. They have begun harassing us and are threatening eviction. If they evict us, where will I go with my kids and parents in this lockdown?" she asked.
Devi is not the only one facing these problems. Thousands of domestic workers across India are struggling for basic needs like food and shelter amid the lockdown period due to the pandemic.
Most households, especially in urban and semi-urban areas across the country, depend heavily on domestic workers for their daily cooking, cleaning, and caretaking needs. There is no current data to point towards the exact number of domestic workers in India but according to National Sample Survey (2012), 39 lakhs people are employed as domestic workers by private households, of which 26 lakhs are female. But, with the lockdown in place, as these women cannot make it to work anymore, the employers are wasting no time in making them feel dispensable. Many such workers have lost their jobs, several have received pay cuts for March salaries, and may not get any in April, and few are still being compelled to work, especially in rural areas.
As privileged people watch Katrina Kaif, and Malaika Arora Khan attempt doing household chores or brush up their own culinary skills, the women who made their lives easy every day -- their domestic workers-- are quickly slipping into oblivion. Few employers have given financial assistance to such workers, fewer still have shown emotional or mental support, or even made a courtesy telephone call.
"I have been trying to contact Modi ji because I need some help. But, I don't know how to reach him," said Smriti*, a Noida-based domestic worker, who lost her job during the lockdown and was not paid the full salary by her employers. She gets a meagre widow pension every month which covers her food expenses, but then she has no money for rent.
Although Smriti had been living with her daughter and son-in-law for the past eight months, she had regularly paid her rent till now. But, since the lockdown as the rest of India began practising social distancing, the distance between her and the daughter has grown by miles, because Smriti is unable to contribute to the household expenses after losing the job.
Her daughter and son-in-law don't talk to her anymore, nor do they cook her food. "When parents stop working, the children treat them like burdens," lamented Smriti in a telephonic interview. "All I want from Modi ji is a small house, so that I don't have to pay any rent, and can spend the rest of my days in peace," she pleaded.
Shanta, a chawl dweller in Mumbai’s Malad area have been asking for loans from her extended family to make ends meet. She too is a domestic worker and is currently out of job. Her brother, a security guard gave up his work during the lockdown, so there is not a single working member in their family at this point in time. As the government extended the lockdown to May 3, her frustration and worries have grown considerably.
"The local shops have stopped providing food for credit. Instead, they are charging twice as much for the same food," she told News18. "Rich people can stock up food. We can only get the bare minimum every day, depending on what we can afford," she added. She knows the severity of Covid-19, but the lack of money and food has been pushing her to reconsider her decision to stay at home during the lockdown.
Meenakshi Gupta Jain, founder of Helper4U, a website that helps connect domestic staffs and prospective employers said that they have seen many requests for jobs pouring in from domestic workers ever since the lockdown started in the country.
"However, what we have seen is a steep fall in domestic workers' hirings, while the requests for hiring delivery boys are picking up," said Jain, who has a massive pool of almost 70,000 workers, out of which many have found themselves to be jobless during this lockdown. She too had to innovate in this crisis. Her website which works on a subscription model is currently freely accessible by all, and she has been getting requests for domestic workers especially from NRIs.
"Because all the kids who live abroad are worried about their ageing parents in India, we have had many requests from them for stay-at-home domestic workers," said Jain. Majority of Jain's call centre callers are slum dwellers and have limited access to the internet or WiFi at home. But, they have not stopped working and are making work-from-home possible from their small kholis (homes). They have also launched a coronavirus helpline exclusively for domestic workers.
However, Jain observes, as others try to innovate and help each other out, some employers have been inconsiderate enough to not even pay their staffs the salary for the month of March, for which they have worked for most days.
'Do our lives matter so little to our employers?'
Crisis situations often define who we are as a society, and the immense lack of empathy and the snatching away of the dignity of labour from the women who work in our own homes speaks volumes about our society.
"There are all sorts of employers. Mine, for instance, have paid my entire salary and asked me to stay at home during the lockdown. But there are some, who are still compelling their staffs to work." said Bibha Lashkar, a member of Paschim Banga Griha Paricharika Samiti (PGPS-West Bengal Domestic Workers Society).
"These employers would simply say things like 'just wash your hands, and face before entering, that's all the precaution you need.' They would claim that the reports of the spreading virus are nothing more than a rumour and dismissively overlook its severity. Tell me this, they are so educated, it isn't like they don't understand the life-threat this virus poses, then why do they choose to overlook it in our cases?" asked Lashkar. "Do the lives of domestic workers matter so little to their employers that they would put it at risk for the sake of their own convenience?" she wondered aloud.
Geeta Menon, Joint Secretary to Domestic Workers Rights Union said, "In the initial stages, domestic workers were not given leaves from work, even from those households where people have returned from abroad. They didn't even take the precautionary measures, and that shows an extreme lack of responsibility. Therefore, we taught the domestic workers to refuse to go to work in such homes."
Paschim Banga Griha Paricharika Samiti (PGPS-West Bengal Domestic Workers Society) have been actively running an information campaign about Covid-19 and the need for social distancing and staying indoors for domestic workers. They have also called the police several times to persuade those who are still going to work to stay at home. "If I survive this, I'll go to work in people's homes, but if I don't live, then what will I do with employment? " asked Lashkar.
But, despite the advocacy, and their personal fear of coronavirus hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles, many women workers are still choosing to go to work.
No rights, no job protection, no salaries
Many women have been fired from their jobs because they couldn't go to work during the lockdown and they have been conveniently replaced by those who can by their employers, said Lashkar. "It is not like we are sitting in our homes just because we want to, it is a government decree to maintain social distancing. What have we done to deserve such a treatment?" she questioned.
There are women workers who are still being compelled to work because they are being told by their employers that they will be fired if they don't show up. "They cannot afford to be jobless, because in many cases, they are the sole bread earners, so they are risking their lives to keep the salaries coming," pointed out Lashkar.
Lashkar and her team members are currently drawing up a list of employers who have fired their staffs at this difficult time. "Of course, we cannot do anything now, but we have noted their addresses and their numbers. After this is over, we will decide how to move forward with such employers, who abandoned their help in the time of need," said Lashkar.
"Majority of domestic workers have received their March salaries, although some got a pay cut from employers who decided that it is okay not to pay them for the days of the lockdown. But, their real worry is that they may not receive April's salaries at all, and may have to go through May penniless, and jobless," said Mewa Bharati, a member of Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgar Union.
If they don't have money in hand, it's not just food that they won't have access to, pointed out Bharati. "Ration is being distributed by the government. We have also collected funds and distributed ration to 3,000 domestic workers ourselves. But, most of them have big families, so it is still hard for them to last an entire month with such limited supplies. However, there are other worries too. Many people who have received ration do not have a gas cylinder or the money to buy it. Many who are unwell, don't have money to go to the doctors. Those who can afford the doctor's visit, cannot afford the medicines. They don't have money for rent, but the landlords in many occasions won't let it go, because their own livelihood depends on it. Their entire lives come crumbling down with a domino effect if they don't have cash flow because they do not have any savings." she added.
If it is hard for domestic workers who had jobs until recently, or still have jobs, it is doubly hard for aged domestic workers, who have been unemployed for a while. "In certain areas in Bangalore, we have been helping the senior citizen domestic workers, because after working for years and taking care of their children, they have nothing left for themselves to carry them through this crisis," said Menon.
Matchbox homes, volatile atmosphere
When you think of domestic workers having to stay at home, you will have to know what kind of homes they are staying in, pointed out Menon.
"Their homes are small and unprotected and those spaces are so congested that they definitely don't allow people to follow social distancing. And of course, there is abuse. Many of them have to face domestic abuse when they are in these homes, and they have nowhere to go. So, for some of them, it is a toss-up between two horrible choices: Either going to work and risk catching the virus or not going to work, and be physically or sexually abused at home. It is hard to say which one is a worse choice."
Jayashree Velankar, director of a Delhi-based NGO, Jagori pointed out that "Violence cases have aggregated for domestic workers especially because the husbands are not getting money that the women domestic workers used to earn and hand them previously."
Many such men are also currently unemployed because their workplaces are shut due to the lockdown. There is the unavailability of alcohol to which some are addicted to. So, several factors make women domestic workers very vulnerable during the lockdown.
Furthermore, the localities in which such domestic workers live, especially in the cities, are now beginning to get infected by Covid-19. Most of their homes do not have baths or toilets, so everyone shares the public toilets and water taps. Therefore, they are also constantly living with the fear of catching the virus, as it spreads through the slums. There is no personal space in their small homes, and being locked in for days is increasing frustration, and anger among many.
Covid-19 isn't just government's problem
A crisis of this magnitude requires the cooperation of all stakeholders, so it will serve any government better if they do not alienate civil societies, NGOs and social workers in the fight against COVID-19, and take all the help they can get.
However, ever since the lockdown, many NGOs, and social workers have faced problems in reaching out to distressed individuals or communities, who are in need of ration, or financial and mental support because of government restrictions. "We cannot reach out to women domestic workers in the Jalpaiguri, and Siliguri districts of West Bengal, because of the travel bans. Our mobility is obviously restricted. It is hard to avail e-passes or get written permissions, so we are working only on verbal assurances of the local police station, which doesn't work everywhere." said Reshmi Bhattacharya, ActionAid India, program manager, women and work unit.
Such limitations have confined ActionAid's relief food distribution to slums of Kolkata like Shobhabazar, Nimtala, Poddar Court, Patuli etcetera since the NGO has not been able to reach out to women who live in the peripherical districts of the capital city in West Bengal.
"We understand that police is also doing their jobs by not allowing us to travel," said Bhattacharya, adding that she hopes that the government along with the police department outlines a process through which NGOs or organisations who distribute relief materials can be granted special permissions legally to reach out to the needy communities and individuals during this lockdown. Bhattacharya pointed out that despite government distributing rations, and counsellors reaching out to the poorer section, the amount of food being distributed is often insufficient to feed large families. So, it is important for the governments of all states to allow NGOs to continue their works on the sidelines so that no one is underfed.
Ever since the lockdown, food has obviously been a major source of concern among domestic workers I communicate with, said Mewa Bharati. "There are more than 100 food centres that serve readymade food in Jaipur. Some are by the government, but many are also run by local individuals, NGOs, and gurudwaras. Until now, whenever we received calls for food assistance, we would give addresses of such centres." she added.
"But, with rising heat, the food goes bad very quickly these days, and people who are already not well-fed stand a chance of falling ill if they eat that. So, the government and NGOs should focus on increasing dry ration, which people can cook according to their convenience," suggested Bharati.
The sooner governments and NGOs collaborate, and get better at anticipating the needs of the poorest section of the society, like domestic workers, and begin offering solutions customized to those needs, the better equipped they would be to mitigate this crisis.
What's the way forward?
Uncertainty looms over the heads of thousands of domestic workers as April draws to a close. "Under current circumstances, the preliminary thing that the government should do is to put a mechanism in place, which ensures that domestic workers at least get a basic salary," said Bharati.
Domestic workers are contractual workers (mainly verbal contracts except in cases of those hired through placement agencies) with low salaries and no job guarantees. Therefore, Velankar suggests that the government must include such workers in their relief packages - especially food/ rations distribution package and/or cash assistance.
"In a city like Delhi, the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) enjoys the privilege of being considered partners by the government. Using this unique relationship, the government should have a dialogue with the RWA to ensure that these workers get paid by their employers --- who are members of RWA -- for this lockdown period," added Velankar.
Whatever the tactics, the most basic thing that the government has to ensure now, is that the employers pay their domestic workers, and do not terminate their services. There are very few laws in place to safeguard the interests of domestic workers, and even the trade unions do not have the resources to fight cases in court, so it is the onus of the government to step in and ensure that they get paid. They should also start door-to-door food delivery so that everyone in slums or rural areas gets access to food.
"Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, for instance, has given statements that employers should not fire their staffs, and domestic workers should be taken care of, but because there is no rule or written order in place, there are many who are not complying to this," said Menon. Another problem that domestic workers face, Menon pointed out, is the lack of basic healthcare security.
"At this point, many government hospitals are COVID-19 hospitals. So, the patients, especially people who are domestic staffs, have no scope to avail treatment for any other disease during this period. Kidney dialysis patients or someone with a chronic heart condition have no access to treatment. Some domestic workers who have fluctuating blood pressure or diabetes also have no medicines available, or the means to buy them." said Menon. "Many of them anyway have really low immunity, so these chronic conditions only make them more susceptible to COVID-19," she added.
*A name has been changed on request.