The plight of domestic workers during India's lockdown

Bhaagya (not her real name) is in her early thirties. She is married, and has two teenage children. She cooks and cleans for several households in Bengaluru, a city of ten million people and the capital of the state of Karnataka, in southern India. She cooks and cleans at home too. She is an internal migrant, and her home village is located in the bordering state of Andhra Pradesh.

In February this year, she catches the flu and takes two days off from work, a rare occurrence. The employers at one of the houses she works for, threaten to fire her without pay for not turning up. Two weeks later, in early March, the same family orders her to go on leave as the novel coronavirus begins to spread in the city.

The official countrywide lockdown begins soon after, on 24th March. She stops going to work. While all the other households she works for continue to pay her for the full month, this family does not. Her income is not much, so this is a significant loss for her. Before the pandemic, she earned around USD 335 per month.

Her landlord turns up at the door to demand his rent. He refuses to defer the rental payment, even though the government has issued instructions to do so. He says he needs the money, as he has to pay rent to somebody too. She spends USD 134 on a new smartphone, so that her daughter can participate in online classes now that her high school has closed its physical premises. The price of the smartphone is the equivalent of Bhaagya’s husband monthly salary – he is in the housekeeping staff of a local company.

Social distancing and restrictions on movement

Bhaagya does not understand all this focus on “social distancing”. She has grown up with it. She remembers the secluded spaces of her village. She remembers not being allowed to fill water from the community tap near her house in the city. She knows not to enter the kitchen in some of the houses that she cleans.

Bhaagya is a member of a Scheduled Caste, the government designation for discriminated communities that are at the bottom of the Indian caste hierarchy. Despite the anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action programmes undertaken by the government since independence, these groups continue to experience widespread discrimination. According to the pernicious ideology of caste, people like Bhaagya can supposedly “pollute” members of the upper castes by touching the food eaten by the privileged, or by using their toilets.

Just before the lockdown, her aging parents and her sister came to the city to visit a relative who was admitted to hospital. They are unable to return to their village. And now, with three extra family members in her small home, what social distancing can they practice?

Her father yearns for his daily intake of liquor, and for his freedom to walk around. He simply cannot bear to be stuck in the city. Things reach a head, and desperate for a way out, they pay an exorbitant USD 8 fee (instead of the usual USD 2) for an auto-rickshaw to take them to the nearest bus stand, four kms away. But there are no buses. They wait for four hours until finally returning home.

A few days later, someone offers to take her parents and sister back to the village via unmanned back roads, if they can cough up USD 240, more than two thirds of Bhaagya’s monthly income. All this has to be organised informally, if people are caught by the police infringing the movement restrictions, they have to pay a large fine. They are not supposed to move during the lockdown.

A few have made it across in the middle of the night, on motorbikes, and by greasing some palms at the border check posts. Her father is hopeful, but she puts her foot down. He says he will walk back to the village (several hundreds of kilometres away) and threatens to leave. Bhaagya shouts:  “If it is so unbearable for you in my house, go and never come back! Even if I’m dying, don’t bother to come!”.

Searching for food

Bhaagya needs more food to feed the seven people in her house now. They have a ration card, an official document that enables poor households to purchase subsided food grains from the Public Distribution System. They are eligible for those extra rations in their home village, but they would have to go back there in person to verify their identity, and that is not an option at the moment. They tried to apply for a ration card in Bengaluru, after paying several bribes, but they got an APL (Above Poverty Line) card, which does not give them much. So they cancelled it.

They sometimes eat the "big mutton" (code for beef), but the price has gone up during the lockdown, and it currently goes for USD 9 per kg, as opposed to less than USD 3 in normal times. It is the only meat Bhaagya’s family can afford, and yet it is difficult to obtain, as fundamentalist Hindu vigilante groups aggressively enforce a state ban on the slaughter of cows.

One day she sees people handing out food parcels in their street. Her son goes out to ask for one. The people ask him to point out his house, and when he does, they say: “We don't cater to houses like yours”. They meant that Bhaagya’s house was properly built and with a concrete roof, so her family was perceived as not doing bad enough to be entitled to food aid.

Meanwhile, in the posh localities where she works, for some strange reason, a van is giving away kilos of tomatoes for free. The wealthy Brahmin ladies rush bare-footed out of their houses and fill their bags with tomatoes.

The struggle of Bengaluru's domestic workers

The account I provided above gives an idea of the struggles that hundreds of domestic workers in Bengaluru had to go through during the lockdown that lasted more than two months. Restrictions have started to ease since early June, and that allowed people to resume work, if they did not migrate back to their villages.

For domestic workers like Bhaagya, the disadvantages of class, caste and gender are compounded, with dire consequences. These women do not have work contracts, and no health or retirement benefits. They rarely belong to a labour union, or to a women’s microfinance or self-help group. It is particularly hard for migrants from other states, because they are not entitled to the same government subsidies they are eligible to in their home villages. Most of these women lead their lives from debt to debt, as there are constant demands from relatives in the villages for financial assistance, usually for marriages or health-related expenses.

Bhaagya is not a victim of domestic abuse, but many of her fellow domestic workers are. After toiling in the homes of others, they continue the same work in their own homes, without ever getting a break or the much needed holiday. There is no concept of a “weekend” for them. Neither can they possibly afford help for themselves, in their own houses.

Most appallingly, they cannot dare to use the bathrooms in the properties where they work – those very toilets that they scrub clean. Even if it is an emergency.

According to the beliefs about purity and impurity underpinning the caste system, that act would render the toilets unclean in a way that no amount of scrubbing can remove. So, while at work, they hold on, and get frequent urinary tract infections. Or they do not drink enough water, and stay dangerously dehydrated.

During the lockdown, the essential work carried out by these women became visible by their absence. Twitter and Instagram were flooded by celebrities sharing videos of themselves picking up a broom for the first time, or learning how to wash dishes, or cook basic meals.

If we in the privileged classes really value this labour, and if we have learnt anything from being forced to do it ourselves, it should be that domestic workers need their rights to be recognised – by the state and central governments, by legal frameworks, and by the communities that employ them, and whose homes cannot run without their support.

Samira Agnihotri is an ecologist who studies birdsong based in Bengaluru, and works at the Office of Communications of the Indian Institute of Science. She also dabbles in linguistics, alternative pedagogies, and promoting and conserving traditional knowledge systems. She is a member of the Punarchith collective.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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