The Lockdown Has Exacerbated Issues Faced by Domestic Workers

The plight of a migrant couple in Bangalore is emblematic of problems that domestic workers are facing.

“Itni door se aayen hai kaam karne ke liye. Humne socha yaahan aayengey, Khushi se kaam karengey, paisa kamayenge. Lekin har din woh hamey chidhate the. Isse behetar hum Jharkhand mein hi rehtey”

(We have come from so far to work. We thought we will work happily and earn some money. But they used to harass us everyday. We were better off staying in Jharkhand.) 

Manish and his wife Rani (names changed) had been living and working in Abshot Layout, an extremely affluent area of Bangalore, as domestic workers for the past month and a half. Originally from Jharkhand’s Ghaghra village, Manish had been living and working in Hyderabad as a cook in the Apollo Hospital cafeteria for the past five years. Through a ‘broker’, he was able to find work in Bangalore at the home of a family he assumed was well-off. This, he said, was a better option for him as his wife could also live and work with him.

Manish first approached my sister, Diva, April 16 as she was taking our dog on his afternoon walk. He walked up to her tentatively, asking, “Kuch kaam hai?” (Do you have any work for me?). When she asked what had happened, he told her that he and his wife were working nearby and had been told to leave from their place of work. He asked if she could find out if there was any work at our house, which is down the road, or whether there was any place for them to stay. She said she would ask and come back.

Our first course of action was to try to call the Karnataka state migrant helpline number, which was created to “reach out to the needy, who will be provided food from the nearest Indira Canteen…or with the assistance of NGOs in the respective localities”. We thought we would have some concrete information about how the state can help in these situations before we go talk to Manish. However, this number did not work. We then called the local police station for an alternative number and received no response. This lack of government services is unsurprising considering that on April 18, the Karnataka labour minister admitted that the government does not have data of people in the unorganised sector such as drivers, farmers and domestic help. “If we have to deposit [money] directly into their account, we need data.” We then decided to mobilise any and all of our personal networks while getting more information about Manish’s situation.

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Sitting at the entrance of a nearby building, Manish, who is 21 years old, and Rani, 19, recounted that ever since they started cleaning and cooking at the house, they had been facing many forms of harassment. Constant verbal abuses, insults and slurs from their employers were accompanied by being overworked consistently. However, they decided to stick with it as Manish is the only breadwinner of his family of six who depend on him. For Manish, when his wife, who is one-and-half months pregnant, was not being given enough food, it was the last straw. “Aur sab mein seh leta, lekin sabse bura laga jab woh unko accha se khaana nahi detey the (I could bear anything, but when they wouldn’t feed my wife properly, I couldn’t bear it),” he said, pointing towards Rani, who was quiet and looked worried.

Manish tells us that he had an argument with his employers on April 15, during which heated words were exchanged. He admits that in his anger, he said that he didn’t want to work at their house any longer and would leave. They packed their things and were given one month’s pay, when they left. Manish says that his employers made no attempts to stop them or enquire about what they would do. They simply allowed them to leave in the midst of a global pandemic.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown, which has now been extended until May 3, the plight of migrant workers due to the lockdown has been widely reported. Thousands of people, starving and jobless, are stranded with little support in cities across the country. However, stories such as Manish and Rani’s remain out of the purview of mainstream media and lost in the constant barrage of the coronavirus-related news. I asked Manish if he knew about the virus and the current restrictions in place. He said he did, and his employers had given Rani and him a mask for protection. He accepted that it was a really difficult situation but that there was no other option but to leave. One can only imagine the intensity of daily harassment that has led them to leave a ‘home’ in today’s conditions, with all their belongings, very little money, no plan.

Stranded migrant workers wearing masks stand in queues to receive food distributed by volunteers at Guru Nanak College during the nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Chennai. Photo: PTI

According to data provided by the Delhi Labour Organisation, there are over five crore domestic workers in India, most of whom are women. Even under normal circumstances, stories of exploitation and harassment of domestic workers are rampant and barely make the news. There are widespread reports of domestic workers in India being underpaid, overworked and abused by their employers. Incidents range from withholding of wages to starvation, not allowing time for sleep or rest, beatings, torture, and sexual abuse. Often, when they are looking for work, they are asked about their caste and religion.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated these issues. Manish and Rani are among hundreds who feel trapped with no place to go. Manish is certain that if not for the lockdown, they would have left the job earlier and returned to Jharkhand. Instead, when we met them, he had spent hours walking up and down the street asking anyone who passed by for any help as they hadn’t eaten anything all day.

As we spoke to Manish and Rani, a large network of local volunteers mobilised to find them a place to stay until they could return to Jharkhand. They were picked up to be taken to a private college that has been converted into a shelter. Within two hours of our first interaction with Manish, local volunteers had mobilised and found a suitable shelter for them to go to. In that time, we received multiple calls from people offering help, some even offering to drive them to the shelter which is about an hour away. This kindness and generosity overwhelmed Manish and Rani, who did not look so stressed any longer.

As they were finally getting into the car for their new temporary home, Rani smiled for the first time since we met. She thanked us for our help. I’d like to believe that many others would have done the same, that our strength lies in solidarity and empathy, and doing our part (however small) to alleviate some of the immense suffering this crisis has caused. During these times, expression of solidarity is rarely spoken about. But it is an important facet to nurture.

Mihika Chanchani is a researcher with the Centre For Equity Studies in Delhi. Her research focus is on communal violence in India, lynching, and Hindu nationalism.

The author acknowledges the inputs of Diva Chanchani in writing this article, Suviti Chari for her swift mobilisation of the Bangalore volunteer network and Navneet FullinFaws for his generous support.