Rajesh Tandon

Last week, when I went for a walk in my neighbourhood, I found 3-4 young women hesitatingly begging from the passers-by. I recognised one of them as she used to work as a maid in my neighbour’s home. Since the ‘rise’ of the second wave of Covid infections in April this year, she was ‘let go’ in the middle of last month.

Little do we realise that ‘letting go’ of a temporary domestic worker, many a time through just a phone call (“do not come from tomorrow”) may suddenly shatter a family, its livelihood and self-respect. Millions of domestic workers have faced this reality in the past month due to the rise in cases, once again. Their situation around large cities has once again become precarious. 

Mamta is one such maid in Gurugram; she was asked to stop working in the middle of April by the two families she used to do household work of cleaning, washing, laundry and some cooking. One family did not pay her April salary either. The other family is now phoning her to come back to work after getting Mamta’s entire family vaccinated.

Over the past week, she tried to find out how to get vaccinated. Lack of clear information about the place, time and cost of vaccination confuses her. She was told that she has to register on an App on her mobile phone; her’s is not a very ‘smart’ one! So, she enquired from her neighbours in the basti (informal settlement). There is confusion, fear and pain amongst them. Nobody knew how to get vaccinated.

A recent survey conducted by Martha Farrell Foundation in parts of Delhi and Gurugram brought out the fact that only 35 (out of 669) domestic workers had been vaccinated first jab. Most complained about their inability to get registered online through the App.

Earlier in March, walk-in registration was possible, but no longer. Domestic workers can not sit in front of their (non-existent) laptops for hours to get a slot for vaccination; even rental charge for data is not affordable by most of them.

Several recent media reports have found similar situation for many informal workers in cities (what to say about villages?). But, it should not be surprising since much of the urgent communications, as a result of the rise in cases, about finding hospital beds, oxygen and ambulances etc, has been happening on Twitter, and that too in English language mostly.

There are estimated to be about 18 million Indians on Twitter, about 10% of global users, according to Twitter data. It is not a surprise that none of the domestic workers are on Twitter. So, finding information about available vaccine slots in and around your home is a challenge for such families.

Some of them heard that vaccination was happening in a mall in a nearby neighbourhood. When a few went to the mall, they realised it was ‘drive-in’ only, and only cars were allowed, not motorcycles or three-wheeler rental autos. Obviously designed exclusively for the vaccination of the urban elites!

covid vaccine drive thru
Photo Courtesy: Google Images

The virulent second wave of infections has caused fever in many of their families. But, they are unable to get tested. One domestic worker was telling her experience in south-east Delhi. She wanted to take her husband for testing as he was showing symptoms of Covid.

But, she found out that ‘free’ testing of Covid was no longer available in the nearby public health facility. One of her former employers told her that she will arrange for her entire family of five get tested on her campus next day.

When the family reached there, they learnt that it would cost Rs800 per person for testing, a princely sum of Rs4000 for the family. That was nearly the amount she used to earn every month before the lockdown due to the second wave.

For others living on that campus, Rs800 was just the price of a hamburger! And, the madam did wonder why the maid could not use her savings? What savings? Months of lockdown last year had deprived the family from any regular income, and so small savings were exhausted. There was no saving for food and rent, what to say about testing, medicines and vaccines!

With a rapidly expanding middle class in India over the past two decades, the provision of domestic services through such maids has also grown. Official data, howsoever inadequate, put their numbers around 5 million, 80% of whom are women. If India’s middle class is estimated to be at least 50 million households, then domestic workers are deployed in each of them, part or full time.

A rough estimate then would indicate about 20 million domestic workers. And, still in India’s newly legislated Labour Codes, domestic workers are not classified as workers. So, even those social security benefits that some other informal workers like in construction are eligible for, are not available to domestic workers.

And, the central government announced an increase in Dearness Allowance of central government employees this week…..about 15 million nation-wide.

Most families of domestic workers are desperate to find some food and income for their survival. The second wave of Covid has devastated them. Now, they hear of next waves in near future. As one of them remarked, ‘as these waves rise again, how much further will we fall?”

This article first appeared in The Times of India | When Waves Rise, We Fall! on May 24, 2021.

About the author:

Dr Rajesh Tandon

Dr Rajesh Tandon is Founder President of PRIA, New Delhi. He is also a Guest Speaker with IMPRI, New Delhi.

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