Kaam wali chahiye? Meri biwi ko rakh lo! Life is very frightening for domestic workers right now


A late night conversation with Lata has just ended.

Lata is a domestic worker, 27 and a single parent to two little girls aged 11 and 9. She was married at the tender age of 13, and had four children. When she was 18 or 19, her husband left her, taking two of their children with him. She has no family support, no spouse, no one who’s got her back.

To make ends meet, Lata works a 12 hour shift in a bungalow in Krishi Vihar. She does all the work in the house and takes home a salary of just Rs. 6000/-. Since the lockdown the salary arrangements have suddenly changed, the employers have told her that she can continue coming to work but will now pay her on a daily wage basis of Rs. 150/- per day for the days that she comes to work. Lata leaves for work every morning at 7:00 after locking her two sleeping children from outside. The neighborhood is not safe she says, which is why she could never go very far to work.

Once Lata gets into the house, it’s another story. Her shift affords her no breaks, no meals. She’s constantly on her feet, and even with the work done, her employers expect her to find something or the other to do. She’s not allowed to use the toilet in the house, to relieve herself. She has to go to the community toilet, and pay a fee of Rs. 2/-  to be able to use it. Once she’s back, she is asked to bathe in the terrace, so as to not bring the virus into the household, before resuming her duties.

Worse still? She says she still has it better than other domestic workers in this second wave.

“If you visit any hospital now, you will see large numbers of people standing outside the gate, mostly women. Through the day one can see cars driving up and people getting out of the car shouting, ‘kaam chahiye (Do you want work?)’ and sometimes when cars draw up, one can see men running to the cars shouting, ‘kaam wali chahiye? Meri biwi ko rakh lo (Do you need a worker? Take my wife)’. All the work available is to look after Covid positive patients. I have seen this myself outside Ambedkar Nagar Hospital. What to do, life is a very frightening reality for all domestic workers today. All have been impacted, those who are still lucky enough to be employed are earning 1⁄4 of what they used to earn. We are now left with no recourse but to agree to put our lives on the line to ensure that our children do not go to sleep hungry.”

Among those who have jobs, too, she says the conditions are pitiful. “‘Don’t call us at all; if we want you back we will call you’ is what employers have told us. I am now paid a daily wage rate when I go to work. But I need the money so I go every day. During lockdown no transport is available, only those with e-pass are allowed on the bus, so I walk 3 hours every day to work and back. I am very careful, I can’t afford to fall ill, there is no one to take care of my girls if I fall ill. So I double mask and don’t touch anyone, always keeping a safe distance. My employers don’t mask for me but they stand 1 meter away from me and speak with me. Yet when their daughter tested positive, I was given the responsibility of taking care of her. My job was to clean her room, make her bed, wash her clothes, feed and nurse her back to health. I was very scared but I had no choice, I needed the job so I kept quiet and prayed that I would be safe.”

Her asks are simple. “We don’t want your tears, nor do we need your sympathy. We want cognisance of our situation and solutions for them. We are invisible in the eyes of the system. That we are recognised as workers is a promise that our system and our leaders have failed to keep. But for now, we ask that free vaccinations are prioritized for all domestic workers, access to free hospital care is assured. We are women, many of us are pregnant, assure us that we will be provided a bed for delivery when we need them. Some of us are lactating mothers. Provide ration for our families. Ensure eligibility for domestic workers to get e-pass so that they can travel by bus to work.”

Martha Farrell Foundation is providing relief in the form of rations, sanitary and medical essentials to domestic workers in Delhi and Haryana. The Covid Relief and distribution network is co-managed by a team of women who include program staff and domestic workers like Lata.  We ended our conversation last night with Lata telling me that she will ensure that every domestic worker in need receives ration, even if it means that she will have to visit every house herself.

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