Dumped by Mumbai's upper middle and middle class, domestic workers survive on charity to stay afloat during COVID-19 lockdown
With no public transport and lack of strict orders to practice social distancing, domestic workers in Mumbai have not been able to continue their services for their upper middle class employers living in the comfort of their high-rise apartments.
An awareness campaign was doing rounds on WhatsApp last week. The image accompanying the message asked in Marathi and English, "House help is also family. We paid salaries. Have you?"
Ever since the 24 March lockdown, the country has come to a standstill with only essential services allowed mobility. With no public transport and strict orders to practice social distancing, domestic workers have not been able to continue their services for their upper middle class employers living in the comfort of their high-rise apartments.
However, for the domestic workers, who reside in the city slums, it's probably their only source of survival. Following the lockdown, several leaders, politicians and activists had appealed to the upper middle class and the middle citizens to send their domestic help on paid leaves. However, in Mumbai, it does not seem to have happened.
On Saturday, this reporter tagged along with a group of volunteers distributing food in slums in different parts of Mumbai. Most of the women, living in these slums, cooked and cleaned in the nearby high-rises and houses. Almost all of them said they have been sent on unpaid leaves, while some said there is no clarity on whether they would be getting their salary or not.
Thirty-year-old Sameena, a resident of Qureshi Nagar near the railway line in Kurla East, said her employers have not been responding to her calls since the lockdown. “They disconnect whenever I call them,” she said, " and the watchman does not let us inside the building because of the coronavirus fear. My employer asked me not to come just before the lockdown began, and that was it. They did not say anything about my salary.”
Rs 4,500 a month is not a big amount for Sameena's employers. "They have a plush home. In that one building, they have three apartments. I have been cleaning their house, and doing their dishes for a year. In times like these, they should be a little considerate. How are we supposed to sustain during lockdown?" she asked.
Sameena’s husband, a worker at a factory that makes paper bags, has also been laid off. She has two school-going children. "The local NGO here arranges for our food," she said, "Otherwise, we would have starved."
Sujata Sawant, who runs the local NGO Adarsh Foundation in Kurla East, said Sameena is only representational case. "Every woman from this slum who works as a house help has been sent on unpaid leave. The employers are so petty that they even cut salaries during normal months. How do you expect them to pay for these workers during a lockdown?"
Sawant’s NGO is trying to ensure slum dwellers and migrant labourers in her area do not sleep hungry. "We have managed to distribute 6,000 meals every day with the help of donations and contributions from well-meaning people," she said, "some get two meals a day, some only get to eat once. Forget salaries, had the employers in these high-rises bought their domestic workers at least a month’s ration, it would have been a huge load off our backs."
Most of the domestic workers in India are not well-educated, and usually come from the poorest sections of the society. They are often at the mercy of their employers because they have no legal protection or a safety net to fall back on. An overwhelming majority of them are women, who cook and clean, and are mostly undocumented workers unless they are recommended from a professional agency. Most of the men are employed as drivers.
According to official number, there are 4.2 million domestic workers in India, but National Domestic Workers’ Movement pegs the unofficial estimate at over 50 million. In Mumbai, there are officially 3 lakh domestic workers. But Shubha Shamim, General Secretary at the Coordination Committee of Domestic Workers Union, Maharashtra, said the number is "at least six lakhs".
In other words, six lakh families are dependent on the benevolence of their employers. And most of these employers, who were at the forefront when it came to banging plates, have abandoned their house help. It also means that the children of the domestic workers, too, are struggling to get two square meals everyday. The lockdown has unleashed unprecedented misery on this section of the workforce, which is mostly unregulated, starving, and struggling to survive.
When asked if she has also observed a similar trend, Shamim agrees. “It is very rare that the employers have sent their house help on paid leave. Most have been asked to fend for themselves. Hardly anybody has received their salary on 1 April even though they put in more than half a month’s work in March."
Meanwhile, at a small hamlet in Goregaon’s Aarey Colony, 35-year-old Jayanti, who works as house help in a high-rise apartment nearby, said her employer told her she will be paid only if she works. "They said we would pay you when you resume work," she said.
Luckily for Jayanti, her husband works at a medical store, which comes under essential services. "The house runs on his monthly salary of Rs 5,000," she said, "but most of the other men here work as daily wage labourers. They have not earned anything in the past month because all the construction sites are also closed."
The names and details of the testimonies change, but the narrative remains same as you move from one slum to another. Ayyub Shaikh, a social activist in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums with a population of a million, said the situation here is no diffirent.
"Most of the upper middle class employers have the privilege of working from home," he said, "and they also have a bit of savings to get by for the next three-four months. The domestic workers cannot afford that luxury. Their survival is dependent on that monthly salary."
Shamim said the “hypocritical” upper middle class and middle class of Mumbai should show “a bit of heart for two or three months”. “They have taken care of you for years, and they will continue to do so after the lockdown ends,” she said. “How can you abandon them at a time like this?”
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