As the extension of the lockdown continues, with considerable leniency expected in areas falling under green and orange zones, most of us began to itch to let our maids back in. Now that the initial enthusiasm to pose pictures and videos while doing household chores has worn off, we are experiencing wear out. It is not easy to work, on both fronts. And while letting the maids go for a period of 21 days, and even the 19-day extension that followed seemed doable, we are now at our wit’s end. But with coronavirus cases still on the rise, the debate isn’t that easy. Is it the right time to call maids back to work? If not, can we afford to pay them their salaries for as long as this crisis lasts (and no one knows how long will that be)? While we must also think over the issue from our maids’ perspective, how many of us have the bandwidth and inclination do that?
- With leniency in the third phase of lockdown, many people are debating whether they should call their maids back to work now or not.
- A housing society in Gurugram has made it mandatory for all maids to have Aarogya Setu app downloaded on their phones in order toto gain entrances.
- But how many maids to have smartphones at their disposal?
- How many of us can continue to pay our maids, if the lockdown is extended further?
- How are domestic workers supposed to fend for themselves in the absence of a steady income?
On the 23rd of last month, I got a call from one of my household help. The desperation was clear in her voice. She was too proud to ask for money, knowing that she hadn’t worked even for a single day in March. Or perhaps she was just afraid of being reprimanded for even raising such a demand. Could she come back to work, she enquired? I said a flat no. I had two 60 plus people in the house, I couldn’t take the risk. But I could afford to pay her salary in advance this month, and I did just that. However, I am not sure how long can I carry on doing this. Just today, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackrey has indicated that the lockdown perhaps won’t be lifted in Pune and Mumbai till 30 May. We had the very first confirmed case of coronavirus in our suburb yesterday. So my thought process on the very issue has undergone a change from two days ago when I was tucked away in a nice green zone. On the other hand, I know that things are only worse for my two maids and that they aren’t the only ones in this fix.
How exactly is a maid who doesn’t have a smartphone produce this at the entry point of her workplace? Is she expected to buy a new phone right now?
Last year, The Economic Times quoted the National Sample Survey in a report, according to which there are an estimated 39 lakh people employed as domestic workers by private households, of which 26 lakhs are women. This data can only offer us a glimpse into how dependant India is on its maids. For women from poor economic background, and with limited education, domestic work is a major source of income, in both urban and rural spaces. But limited education and poverty mean that most maids are not technologically competent, which means that this lockdown is only harder on them. Most maids do not have a smartphone, they have no clue how to avail the facility of online payment.
In Gurugram, some RWAs (residents' welfare associations) are lobbying to continue a ban on the entry of maids in housing complexes, despite the district administration having said that house helps can resume their work. A colleague based in the city informs me that her housing society has made it mandatory for outsiders, including domestic help, to download the Aarogya Setu app, to help them with the screening of COVID-19. How exactly is a maid who doesn’t have a smartphone supposed to produce this at the entry point of her workplace? Is she expected to buy a new phone, an added expense that even those with a steady income right now might think twice before enduring?
While the fear among housing complexes regarding coronavirus spread is not invalid, can they afford to stay indifferent towards the plight of their domestic help? These are the women and men who work for us on daily basis. We interacted with them every day in the pre-corona world. And one has to also keep in mind that they are in such a grave position because of a disease that was brought to this country, to their neighbourhood, and at their workplace because of the very privileged class that is dependant on them for their comfort.
Yesterday, our suburb went into a total lockdown. It feels like we're are back to where we started in March. Only that we aren't. We are now feeling the pinch of the soaring cost of groceries, and going to the ATM to withdraw cash, to pay my maids, won't be an easy task, apart from being a health risk. I paid their salaries in advance for this month, but I don't know how will I manage to help them if a need ever arises, before the end of this month, or before the lockdown is lifted. All I can do is to hope that things will get better, and when they do, we seriously have to out a lot of thought into how we can help the underprivileged be less vulnerable when such crisis hits us again in the future, and I am pretty sure that it will.
Is it the right time to call maids back to work? If not, can we afford to pay them their salaries for as long as this crisis lasts (and no one knows how long will that be)? While we must also think over the issue from our maids’ perspective, how many of us can do that?
The views expressed are the author's own.