Originally from Bihar, domestic worker Sarita now lives in an informal settlement in Gurgaon, flanked on both sides by high-rises. “I have lost work at one of the houses there, because I refused to go on the day of ‘janta curfew’ as everything was closed. My former employers tried to force me to come, after which they threatened to hire someone else,” she recalls.
“When I first heard about the lockdown, my initial reaction was one of shock and concern. Of course, I am scared of the health-related repercussions of Coronavirus, but this virus has brought everything else to a halt – it feels as if nothing is moving ahead. For now, there is no money to earn, but stomachs to fill.” Slowly running out of savings, Sarita is now anxious about procuring food for her family of five (including three children and husband). “Before lockdown I purchased some ration, we are using that till now,” Sarita admits.
Sarita agrees that the lockdown was necessary to control the spread of the disease, but she claims, “The government has not done anything for those of us who lost their jobs because of it.” It’s been over two weeks since the lockdown began, and the number of COVID cases in India has risen has surged past 4000. Yet, testing (thermal or bloodwork) is not being actively conducted in Sarita’s area. Nor has she received free rations reportedly earmarked by the government, despite submitting their names a month back.
“The state is making its announcements but we are all aware that those announcements take a while to come into action. We heard in the news that they would put money in our bank accounts and give us free rations. Nothing has reached us yet and we don’t know how or when we’ll get it. Nobody has come and told us how this transfer will take place.”
“Only our landlord and a policeman came to check our Aadhaar and PAN cards, noted down the information of all family members, and left. Police aren’t making regular rounds to tell people to wear masks, and if they do come, they are often without badges.” Sarita is also worried about how she’ll pay her monthly installments, EMIs, insurance policies, her children’s school fees, phone bills, etc. It’s rent week as well but she is hopeful that their landlord will give them relief for this month.
Sarita, who was a part of our study on sexual harassment in the unorganised sector, is now seen as a community leader. She is in touch with a number of women domestic workers in her area, reporting back on the status of public health and women’s safety in the time of COVID. She is especially worried about the full-time domestic workers – how they are faring, if they are being treated well at their workplace, how their families are managing without them.
“We had formed a support group during our work with MFF, it has allowed us to stay in touch today,” she says. One of the women attached with the #DignityOfMyLabour project who used to face domestic violence, reached out to Sarita recently, saying she felt happy and safe at least for the 21 days of lockdown, as her husband was posted elsewhere for work and hadn’t been able to return home before the borders closed down. For those like her, being quarantined in a single room with their abuser could set off the cycle of violence, with no way out this time.
Turning the lens towards how her personal struggles have magnified due to the epidemic, Sarita says, “I have persistent health issues but I am stuck at home, not even able to go the doctor. I am scared to meet people. What if I touch somebody and get Coronavirus? This epidemic has rendered us scared even of healthy people.”
“For example, most employers are still paying us, but they refuse to transfer it directly to our accounts, insisting instead that we come and take it from their homes. I am scared to leave the house even for collecting my salary in such times of need. When I do go out, I make sure to cover my face with masks. As per one of my employers and the many WhatsApp forwards, I am washing my hands and body regularly, using sanitizers, changing and washing clothes daily.”
“We are not meeting anyone, nor letting anyone come to our house, maintaining distance as much as possible. We are trying to chip in when it comes to housework, dividing the chores and doing it together. When we purchase vegetables from the market, we wash them thoroughly before cooking. Sometimes I cook; other times, my daughter cooks. Although I must admit that my husband is less enthusiastic about domestic work – he seems quite happy to be receiving ready-made meals on time…Speaking of spending the time, when we are not discussing the future, we play Ludo, chess, watch TV and talk to each other .”
Sarita was part of Martha Farrell Foundation’s #DignityOfMyLabour project from 2016 to 2018. This report has been compiled by Nandita Bhatt, Director, with the assistance of Surbhi Kumar and Prarthana Mitra, Programme Officers at Martha Farrell Foundation.