By Shambhavi Saxena:
Here we are again. Between the Devil and the deep blue sea.
Coronavirus infections rose to over 3,00,000 in April as India went under lockdown for a second time in as many years. We’ve seen it before, but by the looks of it, we’re none the wiser. Even with vaccines being rolled out, the virus’ rapid mutations and reports of black fungus continue to trigger panic.
It’s impossible to log onto Twitter or Facebook or the WhatsApp family group and not see the word “COVID”. But what you won’t see in these conversations are the voices of migrant and informal workers, like women domestic workers.
As far as most middle-class employers are concerned, the decision to ‘stop them from coming to stop spread of the virus’ or ‘let go of the help’ was in everyone’s best interest. Not so much, if we hear the other side of the story.
Barely scraping through from the first knock-out (lockdown), an overwhelming majority of migrant informal workers have lost their jobs and source of income. According to a joint study by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU), a domestic workers’ household had about 15 days’ worth of pay in savings on the eve of the 2020 lockdown. Over half of those surveyed had less than 10 days’ worth. How likely is it that this year’s savings (if any!) can tide them over the second lockdown period?
In March 2020, when the lockdown was announced, Settlement Improvement Committees (SICs), formed in urban informal settlements in Ajmer, Jhansi, and Muzaffarpur under our ‘Engaged Citizens, Responsive City’ project, were quick off the block, spreading awareness of hand hygiene and distributing masks. With some support from PRIA, 600 families received masks, sanitisers, sanitary napkins, soap, mosquito repellant, and bleaching powder.
As lockdown continued, and the urban poor faced hunger and deprivation, the SICs used the funds to distribute ration packs to nearly 500 families, containing dal, rice, atta, milk powder, oil, salt and spices, sugar, and tea.
Our support this year is towards women domestic workers in Delhi-NCR, Sonipat, Panipat, and Muzaffarpur, along with the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF), and supported by several local organisations (SEWA Bharat, Shehri Gharelu Kamgar Union, among others).
At the forefront are the women domestic workers themselves.
In the Harijan Basti settlement in Gurugram, abutting the tall condominium complexes of DLF 5, several domestic workers have been asked not to come to work.
Community engagement in this settlement over the past three to four years has helped develop a small, committed cadre of domestic worker champions who provide a support system to their neighbours and friends.
When we reached out to them, to enquire about their health and how we could support them in this time of need, their answer inspires us: “Didi, aap bas hamein ration pahuncha do. Hum distribution organize kar denge.” (Please send us the ration; we will organize the distribution). They collected the data – Aadhar Card details, phone numbers, and so on – arranged them in order of those who needed the ration supplies the most, and sent the list to us.
This helped us prepare the packets for distribution. When people are desperate for food, intra-community conflicts can take an ugly turn, but for the leadership of those community members who care for their community.
The women domestic worker champions chose what went into the relief kits based on their knowledge of their community. “They were mindful of regional diets”, explains Samiksha Jha, Program Officer at MFF. “Kits with daliya and protein-rich sattu went to migrants from UP and Bihar,” says Jha, “while those from Haryana got their staple of aloo-pyaaz. They asked for sanitary hygiene products for menstruating workers, and iron tablets for pregnant women. In addition, two women have started stitching order of 4,000 cloth masks that we are including in these kits.”
Since early May, these domestic worker champions have helped us reach out to over 1,200 households, in Khanpur, Naraina, and Jamia Nagar in Delhi, to informal worker settlements in Sonipat and Panipat, Faridabad and Muzaffarpur, steadily moving us towards our target of 3,500 households.
Prior to the pandemic, domestic workers in South Delhi were making an average of ₹9,000 a month, well below the minimum fixed by the Delhi government. In reality, with wages being set by the middle-class household who employs them, these women have little individual and collective bargaining power to increase the wages.
It gets worse: a study by WIEGO found that domestic workers were spending three-fourths of their income on visits to the doctor. You’d think there were no government schemes to make healthcare accessible.
But there are.
The Ayushman Bharat Yojana promises secondary- and tertiary-level care up to ₹5,00,000 per family per year, and it covers domestic workers. The Delhi Aarogya Nidhi provides financial support of ₹1,50,000. The Aam Aadmi Mohalla Clinics are there to provide basic healthcare to underserved people. But the chinks in the institutional delivery mechanism have never been more apparent.
Take for example e-coupons for ration. To you and me, it might seem like a top-notch plan – the process can be done from our home offices and in under 10 minutes. Except that it excludes everyone without a data-enabled smartphone, identity documents, and a way to print out the coupons.
Same goes for the vaccine. “Tikakaran lein toh aakhir lein kaise (How are we supposed to get our shot)?” a domestic worker from Harijan Basti asks. “Online registration ek jhamela hai. Lagta hai yeh vaccine hum log ke liye hai hi nahi (Registrations are a big hassle. It feels like the vaccine just wasn’t made for us).”
Going beyond relief materials, PRIA and MFF are taking the next step of assisting women domestic workers register online for the vaccine, and should they get lucky, helping them reach the right facility on the day of their appointment.
When one domestic worker from Southeast Delhi went to a government clinic, she found the free COVID test was no longer available. She was directed to private camps, but they were charging ₹800 a head. For her family of four, it was the equivalent of one month’s pay. By providing guidance and information to women domestic workers living in informal settlements, PRIA is making sure they don’t find themselves in a similar situation.
Distributing ration takes care of a very basic need, but domestic workers need support in more ways than one, over a longer period. And it can (and must!) come from the middle classes who employ them. The Institute of Social Studies Trust found that 54.3% of domestic workers could not collect their salary, while 10% said their salaries were withheld. Employers can make a huge difference by learning about the rights of domestic workers. A good place to start is to the read the domestic workers manifesto – what domestic workers want, in their own words.
Women informal workers deserve sustainable livelihoods and safe and healthy places of work – all of which will secure their future through the pandemic and beyond.
“Mera sapna, mera bhavishya” is their hope.