“They have this idea of us in their heads, as if we are more unhygienic and unsanitary than others, when we care for cleanliness as much as anyone else,” says Guddiya, a domestic help worker from Kambala village in Mohali, whose employers have asked her to not report to work even after the lockdown ended.
Like Guddiya, many other domestic health workers from the Tricity have struggled to get their jobs back, and fear for survival. On the occasion of International Domestic Workers Day, The Indian Express spoke to female domestic workers to highlight the extent of their financial struggles, post the lockdown.
“The situation for these workers is even worse in urban areas, especially in the Tri-city, there is barely any awareness regarding the rights of domestic workers,” says an employee from the Self -Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).
On Tuesday, domestic workers affiliated with SEWA conducted an awareness campaign, ‘My Fair Home’ in the Tricity and in five districts of Punjab, emphasises on domestic workers’ right to work. It urged employees to take notice of the plight of domestic workers and protect their rights.
Constituting a major section of the informal economy, domestic workers are a marginalised group with a precarious livelihood, and the extent of their socio-economic vulnerability has been more visible since the Covid-19 induced lockdown.
According to a conservative estimate, there at least 40 lakh women employed as domestic help in India. Out of these at least 85 per cent workers have not received their wages or have been let go by their employees during the lockdown.
However, far from ensuring the rights of domestic workers, employees seem to be exploiting their economic vulnerability even more.
“I used to work in patient care, and was trained to do house work as well, but I am getting no jobs since the lockdown. The job offers I do get is for 24-hour work. It is inhumane, how can I stay up all night and all day looking after a patient, but no other jobs are available,” says Jyoti, another domestic worker from Mohali. Jyoti said that people expect domestic helps to take up any job since they are so desperate for work, and are hence imposing exploitative standards of work on them. “If I ask for a twelve-hour shift instead, they completely refuse, saying they won’t take me unless I stay at the house all day. I have a family of my own, I have children, how can I just leave them to go live somewhere else?” asks a bereaved Jyoti.
The unemployment rate is worse in urban areas, since they do not have many alternatives. “In Punjab for example, many workers from the informal economy can still turn to agricultural labor to sustain their livelihood. But there aren’t as many alternatives for these workers in an urban setting,” explained the SEWA employee.
What makes employment opportunities even more lean for most domestic helpers based out of Chandigarh is that most of them stay in Covid-19 affected pockets or former containment zones like Bapu Dham Colony or Dhanas.
Tara, who is a resident of the EWS colony in Sector 52, states that even though only two residents tested positive for Covid-19 from her locality, neither her nor other domestic workers in her colony have been asked to come back for work.
“Most of us have not been paid since April, we have no savings left and many don’t even have a ration card. Our children will starve at this rate,” says Tara.
Many domestic helpers are migrant workers, who only possess documentation from their permeant homes in the villages they come from, and have hence not been able to acquire a ration card in Chandigarh.
“We have said that no one can stop these women from coming to work, but of course if someone personally has a problem, it’s on them to let their domestic workers go,” said Hitesh Puri, Chairman of the Chandigarh Residents’ Association Welfare Federation (CRAWFED). Puri added that though most people in the refused to hire domestic workers back for a while, they will begin hiring them back soon. “But it might be a challenging time for domestic workers for a few more weeks for now,” added Puri.
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