Posted by Sanhati Banerjee
As domestic workers are rendered jobless and without financial and social security—the halted urban maid express exposes deep-rooted prejudices.
Rinku*, a 28-year-old woman from the Medinipur district of West Bengal, stays in a slum colony on the outskirts of Dwarka in New Delhi. She works as a domestic worker at multiple apartments in Dwarka—cooking, cleaning utensils, mopping floors, feeding and attending to babies. Rinku stays with a daughter of five and a half and a son of three; her husband died in a drunken brawl two years ago, and she shares her small room and kitchen with a young man from her village.
A migrant domestic worker, Rinku came to Delhi five years ago with her newborn in her arms. The slum houses several Bengali migrant families from Medinipur, many now settled for years—employed in unskilled or semi-skilled domestic and construction labour. The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown has put a pause button on life in the colony—the containment plan in place to stop the spread of the virus has hungry children, angry-abusive husbands and landlords and a restless desire to go back “home” staring at it.
24-year-old Kajal, who hails from Samastipur in Bihar, works in one of the gated societies on the Dwarka-Palam Link Road and its interior, upcoming New Palam Road in New Delhi. Some of the society authorities asked domestic workers to stop coming in the first phase of the lockdown, while others continued to ask them to come to work armed with masks. The societies are home to several airline officers and staff, retired defence personnel, millennial Gurugram professionals and parents of NRIs.
Kajal first came to Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar via a “contact”/middleman working at a placement agency to escape poverty and gruelling daily work in return of a meagre meal at her village and worked as a domestic help and nanny. In between, she eloped with a young man to a village in Haryana in the lure of domesticity but ended up doing bonded physical and sexual labour; as fate would have it, she escaped and is now “settled” in a jhuggi near the Link Road.
Meanwhile, Burima (translated as “old mother”, so addressed owing to her age), a domestic worker who also plies water from the housing sweet water tap to supply jars in a government housing complex in central Kolkata area has not received her full pay for March and doesn’t know how to buy her next month’s medicine.
These women represent a juggling demographic—women from rural and tribal parts of India migrating to the bustling and human-dense metros cities and sub cities, or working locally in search of and hope for better livelihoods and independence. The National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) has been involved with domestic workers, children in domestic work and migrant domestic workers for the past 30 years. As per a study by NDWM, the number of domestic workers in India range from official estimates of 4.2 million to unofficial estimates of more than 50 million. Girls and women constitute the significant majority of domestic workers. Between 2000 and 2010, women accounted for 75 per cent of the increase in the total number of domestic workers in India.
Under the lockdown, domestic workers at large face a crisis of food and shelter, medication, independence and domestic abuse. As workers of the informal sector, most do not have valid residence proof and are hence not registered beneficiaries of state governments’ pledge to three months of additional food grain allotment. A pandemic like COVID-19 comes with several collateral damages: so, domestic workers like other vulnerable classes are at risk of being dealt with disrespectful and discriminatory care at medical facilities and police violence meted out to lockdown “violators”.
A Case of Social Shaming
The COVID-19 lockdown with its de facto social distancing norm has exposed underlying class and caste reservations. The prevailing general view, outspoken or apathetic of how the working classes are potential carriers or super spreaders despite the corroboration of the initial coronavirus carriers being foreign-returned individuals give away to deep-seated class perceptions. The initial stages of the coronavirus life cycle reportedly saw the rich and the privileged hobnobbing at malls and multiplexes flouting rules of post-travel, mandatory 14-day quarantine. Many domestic workers including maids and cooks, caregivers, drivers and gardeners at such households had to face isolation and some tested positive.
And yet, it’s the “them”—who will spread the “imported” disease, who need to be schooled in hygiene, who need a demonstration of hand washing, who need to be told to wear a mask and how, who need to be kept at a distance despite the very nature of their job demanding them to operate in the most intimate spaces of a household like the kitchen and bedroom. It’s always the “them” who are “dirty” as they live in closed quarters, dingy lanes and depend on community water tankers, wear the same set of clothes and survive on petty meals.
Maid of Honour
This perception of “them” during the current crisis—as a potential threat to the “us”—as much as it reeks of class elitism it is not very different from boundaries drawn on the basis of caste. Lower-caste and Dalit identities have been historically viewed and represented through the prism of upper-caste, especially Brahminical purity-pollution and uncouth-refined standards. Since applied science is an exercise in social habits and ritualistic practices, the current hygiene protocol has inadvertently brought back divisions anew on the lines of caste prejudices.
The practice of separate seating and eating spaces allocated for domestic workers, culturally justified through hygiene talks but masked underneath internalised caste divisions find a fresh lease of life in the collective phobia. A Raj-era hangover, “the servant class” construct has survived in India with all its latent connotations. The caste phobia of touch—as it is supposed to contaminate—now finds a clinical legitimacy. As Neetha N., professor and acting director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, says, “Domestic workers are being told to change their clothes and shower, if possible, at the entrance of many residential complexes—it’s a class war.”
Reports show that large sections of Indian men are still untrained in and apathetic to domestic chores. Yet even as an overwhelming majority of urban and Tier-I and Tier-II town women find freedom from their burden of domestic chores and the much-needed work-life balance, the same upliftment is not extended to those at the cost of whom this post-liberalised, urban- and semi-urban feminism comes.
The gig economy of maids, kamwalis, bais do not credit domestic work as standardised work and hence comes with no social employment covers. Booking agencies like BookMyBai run guilty of entitled advertisement like the infamous tagline, “Diamonds are Useless/Gift your wife a Maid” and questionable policies of profiling workers on the basis of religion and region. Tripti Lahiri’s book Maid in India: Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes, centred around the domestic-help market in Delhi, raises some piercing questions.
Lahiri writes of Delhi as a city of extremities with its plush and affluent residences and bungalows where young girls from poverty-stricken pockets in “Assam, Jhakhand, Odisha and West Bengal come to work as domestic helps and a majority face overwork, abuse and often go missing”. Lahiri dives into the hypocrisy of Delhi’s elite Gymkhana Club, which may have become more progressive by replacing the terms “maids” and “ayahs” with personal attendants, but forbids them from entering the front lawn nonetheless.
Organisations fighting for a national union of domestic workers have focused on the lack of a formal contract, minimum wage structure and guarantee, anti-abuse—both physical abuse and sexual harassment, among others. Paschim Banga Griha Paricharika Samiti (PGPS-West Bengal Domestic Workers Society) active against abuse at workplace, a Kolkata-based workers’ organisation was granted a trade union certificate by the Bengal government in 2018.
Neetha N. says, “Alongside the economic incentives and protection laws, social safeguards such as educational provisions for domestic workers’ children, a medical allowance for tests and medication for underlying conditions and emergencies like accidents, old-age provisions are equally important. With domestic workers around, standard expectations of cleanliness and household work have also gradually increased manifold to unrealistic and inhumane.” Provisions of fixed working hours, paid and willing overtime work, paid annual and causal leaves, respectful behaviour are equally important for their work-life balance and self-esteem. If workers at formal workplaces are entitled to “entertainment” and phone bill reimbursements, why not domestic workers? For that their work needs to stop being trivialised.
Popular Culture and the Lens of Privilege
During the lockdown, several celebrities have taken to Instagram to post videos of their doing bartan-jhadoo-pocha, and several revelled to see their dear star idols coming down on the mortal realm to perform mortal tasks. Firstly, celebrities often work with a livery of live-in and live-out staff. Secondly, a celeb’s sweeping a corner for social media engagement can’t be the same as labour that needs to be performed as a compulsion without any perceived personal gain or career traction.
The tasks of cleaning and sweeping, reserved for the lower castes, continues to stigmatise the performers of the task. In the time of Coronavirus, several well-to-do people have taken to posting pictures of cleaners, sweepers and garbage, saluting the “#coronawarriors” and urging people to stay put and bid time, because if “they” can that too with a “cheerful smile”, why can’t we, right? Well, the class irony couldn’t be far away: “They” have not chosen their profession, “they” did not have the access or education to demand dignity of their labour and least of all, to question how they live or work.
It is easy for those living in secure and sanitised spaces to argue for the case of a romanticised quarantine—of course, it is their right to freedom of expression to do so—but it also shows how desensitised we are to suffering and disadvantage. That the “they” is not writing self-congratulatory captions, or evocating their followers to rise above the situation is ample proof of that.
The quarantine will pass sooner or later, and domestic workers will also be called back to work as they perform too important functions to let go off; but, will it teach us to acknowledge and respect the dignity of their labour beyond toxic Tiktoks, sexist memes and pretty photo-ops?
Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based journalist with special interests in literature, culture and gender. When not working, you will find her having tea, lecturing on Bangla books or brushing her unruly hair. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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