In debt for survival: Domestic workers in Mumbai narrate ordeal of COVID-19 lockdown

Many domestic workers in Mumbai, are now desperately waiting for a call from their employers asking them to come back to work

Sarasvati NT July 29, 2020 12:04:58 IST
In debt for survival: Domestic workers in Mumbai narrate ordeal of COVID-19 lockdown

Mumbai: Bharti Waghela, who lives in a transit camp in Mumbai's Dadar, is worried about how she can repay a loan of Rs 30,000 that she took to meet her household needs. The 40-year-old was a domestic worker but lost her livelihood during the nationwide lockdown which was enforced by the government to control the spread of coronavirus four months ago.

"We had taken the loan from a sahukaar (local money-lender) at an interest of ten percent. Now, we will have to take another loan to pay for our children’s college admissions," she said.

After losing her livelihood as a domestic worker, Waghela initially sold vegetables and paneer rolls for a while. She has recently begun working as a caretaker for patients in a local nursing home, where she is called once in four or five days for work and is paid accordingly.

As her husband, a contract labourer at the BMC, is also unemployed, Waghela is currently the only earning member of the family. “I am ready to take up any regular job for my family’s survival and to pay back our loans. Any small business with the government’s help will be fine,” she said.

In debt for survival Domestic workers in Mumbai narrate ordeal of COVID19 lockdown

Bharti Waghela, a domestic worker who lost her livelihood due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown. Sarasvati NT

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's transit camp houses many such domestic workers who are grappling with joblessness and increased expenses. This situation is also resulting in some women facing physical and mental abuse from men in their families.

Ranjana Khobragade, a 50-year-old domestic worker from Shastri Nagar, a slum in Santacruz, used to earn Rs. 10, 000 through working in three houses. She has been unemployed for over five months now.

The family received some ration from a local NGO, but she worries about rent that they have not been able to pay for three months, electricity bill and a debt of almost Rs one lakh. Khobragade had availed the loan from a local bank along with a group of four other women from the area.

“How do we repay the loan now?” she wondered.

Khobragade is among hundreds of women who live in slums at Kalina and work as domestic helpers in nearby plush residential societies. Most of these women live in rented houses and are the sole bread-earners of their families.

In debt for survival Domestic workers in Mumbai narrate ordeal of COVID19 lockdown

Ranjana Khobragade, a domestic worker who lives in Mumbai's Kalina. Sarasvati NT

Some domestic workers were paid their salaries for at least two months by their employers and received some ration from different sources, including from their relatives. However, their income sources have dried up, and they now have to avail of loans for food and their children's education.

Cash transfers by the government could be a good step in this situation, suggested Dinesh Haldankar, a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Domestic Workers’ Union. He also said that a long-term measure could be increasing the participation of women in self-help groups.

He suggested, "Such self-help groups can be directly connected with local banks. Loans should be made available to women at not more than four percent per annum. These banks can also provide financial aid and advice to the members on how to facilitate the financial inclusion of women."

However, while many of the women this reporter spoke to had availed of loans from micro-finance services, very few of them were willing to be a part of self-help groups. Vishranti Kale, a member of the Abhilasha Mahila Bachat Gat from Vakola, said, “Not many women enroll themselves in self-help groups as they cannot afford the interest rates. Moreover, the existing members would have to pay the interest amounts that have been pending since the lockdown began.”

According to Haldankar, another step that the Maharashtra government can take is to come up with a common minimum programme for addressing the concerns of workers in the informal sector. "The government can restart the domestic workers’ board in the state, through which it can provide loans to domestic workers at zero interest," he said.

Many domestic workers in Mumbai, like Waghela and Khobragade, are now desperately waiting for a call from their employers asking them to come back to work. However, in the interim, they are hoping that the government takes some measures to ensure their financial and job security.

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