Domestic workers in the times of COVID-19 lockdown
Domestic helps are a significant part of urban middle class life. Now with lockdown in force, kids at home and everybody working from home, they are needed more than ever
Sumati (name changed), a thirty five year old domestic worker earns her living by working in five houses in a sub-urban area in Delhi. Everything was going well till the news of outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19). She is under severe stress as her thirteen year old son is suffering with a moderate fever for the last two weeks. She initially consulted Government doctors but dissatisfied with their treatment she shifted him to a private doctor causing huge burden on her pocket. Having gone through his case history and symptoms, doctor ruled out the Coronavirus infection. Now her son is under medication and stays at home. Sumati has to leave her son alone while she goes to work. She cannot afford to stay back at home and take care of her son full time as she is the only bread earner in the family of four (three children and she herself).
While at work she attends frequent calls from her ill son as he sometimes gets scared because of the news he follows about the Coronavirus on social media and news channels. He starts feeling that he is also suffering from same virus. A few times she was forced to rush to her home leaving her work in between to take care of him. She is having difficult time because of her extended responsibility towards her home because of son’s illness. She is afraid too because of the threat from the virus but asking for leave is not an option for her. She cannot afford to sit at home as she has to feed her three children.
Sumati’s story is not an aberration but there are many domestic workers like her who work in the same society and are worried for themselves and their family members. In an another case, Ruhi (name changed), twenty five years old, came to Delhi from Bihar recently with her two children in search of her husband who had left for Delhi only after a year of their marriage. He was working as a guard in a factory and used to visit village every six months initially. He also used to call Ruhi regularly. But, suddenly his behaviour towards her changed. She has not received any call from him for last one year. It was getting impossible for her to manage the expenses for her children. Then her sister, who was already working in Delhi as a domestic worker, asked her to come to Delhi and promised to help her in finding her husband.
After arriving in Delhi, she made all the efforts to locate her husband but without any success. To meet her expenses she also started working as domestic help in the same housing society where her sister was working. She lived with her sister for some time and then shifted in a separate one room house in a slum nearby. Ruhi is also aware about the COVID-19. Her employer had shared all the do’s and don’ts related to the disease. She is among the very few domestic workers who are still going for work. Ruhi won’t get leave, as she works for an elderly couple, and her absence will make the situation difficult for them. She hopes that somebody from their family would come to take care of them so that she can take leave and be with her children in this difficult time.
Both of them shared how their employers were luring them by various means to come to work despite the fear of getting infected of COVID-19. A few employers offered them space to stay while a few offered them extra money. In a few cases they had no other option but to continue the work. Some domestic workers were even asked to quit jobs in other houses but to continue working in theirs. A few tried to persuade women domestic workers to continue working by terming COVID-19 as myth.
The situation is equally complex for the employers (women mainly). They want their domestic helps to keep working for them as the burden of all the household responsibilities will fall on them. Aradhna, 47 years old employee of a domestic help said, “I know they keep roaming around and are working in different houses. But, we maintain utmost level of hygiene. We provide them sanitizers, make them wash their hands frequently, provide them separate footwear, and even sanitize things touched by them.”
Neela, another employer is a mother of two kids - seven year old girl and a four year old boy. Her father in-law is suffering from heart related issues for a last few months. At home she has to take care of all of them. Due to frequent office related travel and long working hours, her husband who works in an MNC is not able to assist much. With outbreak of COVID-19, her husband has been asked to work from home. All this has placed tremendous household pressure on her which she cannot manage without the assistance of her maid.
Sharing of household responsibilities by husbands is not very common in India. However, in recent years there has been growing participation of women in labour force. But women are expected to manage household work along with office work. Even in cases where husbands assist in household work, primary responsibility lies with women only. Roma shared that interestingly her husband is fond of cooking. But whenever he prepares something, cleaning of the kitchen takes hours. Both are working from home and have asked their maids not to come for a few days. Her husband sits with laptop the whole day working and keeps demanding tea or coffee. She is somehow meeting constant demands of kids and husband while managing household work and office work.
Domestic work in India falls under the category of unregulated and under paid work. Most of the domestic workers do not have any legal contract with their employers. This leaves them at the mercy of the employer who may choose to pay or deny to pay during unpaid leave. Modern lifestyle, leisure and growing participation of women in the labour market has resulted in growth in demand and dependence on domestic workers in urban areas.
Delhi being the capital city is an attractive destination for many migrant women from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand to work as domestic workers. Most of them migrate with male members of their family while a few migrate on their own. The domestic workers in order to earn money to sustain in urban area like Delhi need to do cooking and cleaning work at four to five houses. Till now the practice has been to deduct the amount against the days domestic workers take leave because of various reasons like illness or illness of any family member or to attend any social function at home. These domestic workers also go unemployed when they go to their homes for longer duration.
The call for paid leave to domestic workers has come as a welcome relief. But there is a long way to go in providing legal backing to the domestic workers and sharing of household responsibilities between household members.
Nisha Bharti is PhD from TISS
Arpita Giri is PhD scholar in Jamia MilIia Islamia