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Is The Upper-Class Concern For Domestic Workers In Bengal Genuine?

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As the second wave of the Corona induced pandemic pulled in, the Bengal Government, just after returning to the office by winning the 2021 legislative election, declared a partial lockdown in the state. Apart from cutting down on the market timings, the government decided to withhold the train service, drawing out a narrative by the citizens and discussing it over social media about the daily passengers who avail the local train service.

Of all people, a generalised discussion was visibly catching sight where many people showed empathy towards the domestic help and the daily wagers who travel via train regularly to contribute their labour by providing service in the public sector, notably in the construction sites where men dominate the labour force.

If we go by records, the mass usually provides service on the domestic front. They work as domestic service providers in urban middle class or higher class families to whom this culture of recruiting one or more domestic worker is more likely a status quotient.

domestic worker
Representative Image.

The concept of domestic worker emerged in the 19th-century colonial period when the middle class had the luck to join in different kinds of new job vacancies that were available. As they started earning, they tried to differentiate themselves from their relatives/neighbours by status.

Once the men pulled in this status factor, the women too refused to engage in household work. All that work that makes a human independent suddenly turned out a status quo and this is where the Bhodrolok/Bhodromohila culture was born if I am not mistaken.

Therefore, the lower-income group that generally lives in villages had to migrate to the city to serve the newly emerged Bhodroloks (Bengali term used to define upper class) and they by default became Chotoloks (Bengali term used to define low class) in the pages of history.

Over the years, villagers have been mocked by mainstream city dwellers in every sector a village residing individual tries to make a place for themselves. I have personally faced mockery at school, in college and seen the culture in the office as well. It is funny that the bhodroloks are now crying their lungs out for the tagged chotoloks or the domestic service providers as they can’t travel to the city and blaming the government.

It would rather be a humane approach if service receivers realised that the spreading of the virus could threaten the lives of their service provider, which could account for more deaths given the fact that the health infrastructure is absolutely poor in rural hospitals in comparison to city hospitals and the fact that the service providers have to travel via train to reach the city.

While travelling in crowded trains, they can fall prey to the virus. Scientists have been repeatedly said to avoid crowded places. It is in the onus of government to ask all its citizens to stay back home and arrange for food and ration to combat the hunger issues during the crisis.

That the government had arranged for ration in the first phase, we hope arrangements will be made in the second phase. However, what needs more attention and activism is the distribution of the ration to every citizen at utmost need instead of buffering stocks which is a common scenario in rural areas of Bengal where the distributors themselves loot the ration.

domestic violence
Representational image.

When the slogan of the pandemic is “stay home, stay safe”, why to risk the lives of all who provide services in the city, especially the domestic workers (as the protest mostly aims at showcasing their tragedy for not being able to travel due to withdrawal of rail services) for the benefit of the economically better off class who believe they can buy cheap labour so they need not ever do the basic household work.

Instead, they have put all that time in drawing different theories to make the domestic workers travel to the city so that their household chores get done. The politics of class which is talked about more often, fails the subalterns because they hardly understand the concept.

However, the literate mass who picks up a debate on anything related to the class structure is supposedly failing the system itself by not realising the importance of life over the economic crisis that they claim will be drawn over daily wagers. The protest should rather focus on getting each family enough ration from the government to deal with the crisis.

From my day to day experience with the domestic workers, I have found out that few houses are asking their maids to get an RTPCR test done and only if they can validate themselves by testing negative they are allowed to work. If not, it’s a no pay, no wage for now. My curious heart questions, isn’t the RTPCR test costly already and does this not create pressure on a domestic worker to get it done?

The question of getting an RTPCR test proves that the employer is afraid for their life so they want to be sure of the fact that the service provider is not carrying any virus to their place. However, it is not possible to take the test every day, and god forbid, what if the virus attacks the service provider just the day after they take the test? What if they fall prey to the virus while travelling? Who takes responsibility for their life then?

Senior woman washing dishes in the kitchen
Representative Image.

Having asked that, I cannot completely overlook the dimension of gender differentiation whereby if the domestic workers are limited from travelling to the cities, who does the household work in the urban middle-class or upper-class family? As per the societal structure, the women will be looked at for all the household work beside their office work.

Whereas, if we consider the lifestyle of domestic helpers, they travel miles to provide service in the households of the cities and gets back home only to serve their own family members. It is a common scenario amongst this class whereby they wake up early in the morning, cook food for their family members, do all the cleaning and washing and only then are they allowed to travel to the cities to earn a living, which is not for their own selves but the whole family.

I don’t know if I can use the term “enjoy” here as whatever amount these women earn as the wage is far below their employment status. This sudden surge of empathy that the bhodroloks/bhodromohilas are showing them because the state government has declared a curfew on the train service makes me wonder if it’s at all empathy or rather apathy that people are missing out on.

Is it because the bhodroloks will have to contribute to the household chores that is making them protest against this decision of complete lockdown, or is it genuinely the income deal? We might have to wait and watch the consequences unless the virus itself gives the verdict. Even though there are rumours that the virus is reportedly human-made, it seems the decision making trait of humans, especially the one’s in power, is at stake.

Also, suppose thorough statistical data could be drawn enquiring the domestic helpers regarding them staying home during this crisis. In that case, a better picture of the whole scenery could be understood as my human instinct says no one wants to die being affected by a virus.

However, as these people are easily convinced and fear losing the least they earn, it is quite easy to put words in their mouths. That’s how the world is running, by looting the subalterns while claiming to help them.

Acknowledgement: Professor Samita Sen (certain concepts are used as references from her latest lectures).

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