By Bhavya Shyam
Reena rushes to her employer Mrs Mishra’s house at 8 am every day, removes her chappals outside the door and picks up the broom kept in the kitchen. As she sweeps dust off from the floor, Mrs Mishra asks her to take a chutti (leave) for 2 weeks and collect her salary for this month before she leaves the colony today. The young girl earned bare minimum from this job and is able to pay for rent and food only with negligible savings. She had never taken a sick leave before let alone a paid leave.
“Kya mere kaam me koi galti hui hai? Agar aap kaho toh mai roz sabse pehle aapke yaha hi jhaadu kar karke jaungi (Is there something wrong with my work? If you want, I will sweep your place first every day and then go work at other houses)” Reena said anxiously as she thought she was getting fired. Mrs. Mishra then assured her that she is not losing her job, this leave is to prevent the spread of a new disease called Corona or Covid 19.
She goes to the bathroom and fills up the mopping bucket, while carefully mopping the floor with a phenyl water the girl asks Mrs Mishra more about this infection. This was the first time she heard about the corona pandemic and how the whole country will be going on a lockdown soon.
Reena is a resident of ‘Khora’, a small town on the Ghaziabad- Indirapuram border. The shanty town is on one side of National highway 24. The other side of this highway is Indirapuram, a well-connected prime residential neighborhood city on the NCR border.
The girl came from Bhopal with her grandmother at the age of 6, These women left their home and came to the capital for a better life. Reena’s grandmother worked as a daily wage laborer in the nearby mandi (wholesale market) on the Ghaziabad border.
The old lady passed away a few years ago and Reena now lived with 4 other girls in a rented space in Khora. At the age of 23 she started working as a house help in posh localities of the nearby city, Indirapuram. Along with a few other women Reena takes a tempo to work every day for 5 rupees. These women work as house help in the multistorey societies across this city. She alone works in 5 houses in an old railway colony, her job comprises cleaning three of them and washing only dishes in the other two.
It started making sense to her why all her white-collar employers have been at home the past few afternoons. “We don’t know if they come from hygienic places, and we cannot risk getting infected by our maids” said Mrs Mishra when asked why she gave her house help a leave. While paying them is an individual choice, some residents of the locality have also fired their maids without telling them why or giving them any money.
In the afternoon most maids of this railway colony gather in a circle and eat their dabba’s(packed lunch) and talk about their day. The agenda of Reena’s dabba circle that day was this new word Corona virus. A few of her friends got paid for this chutti while most of them were fired without any payment. Amidst the stress of how their family will sustain without their income and how to protect themselves from this disease, the maids joked about how they ‘can’t work from home’ like their employers.
According to WHO guidelines in order to contain the spread of corona virus also known as the novel corona virus or Covid 19, social distancing needs to be practiced and human interactions should be limited as the virus can spread through touch and infected surfaces.
Multinational organizations have advised their employees to work from home during this lockdown, the people who can’t avail the work from home facilities are the daily wage laborer’s working for these white-collar professionals. Their job description entails mopping the floor, cleaning the toilets, washing dishes, cooking, cleaning cars, ironing clothes etc.
People in my neighborhood are concerned about the about the spread of virus from their maids. Most of these maids don’t have access to masks, gloves, sanitizers etc, they travel in public transport and in touch with multiple surfaces. These conditions can make them carriers of this fatal virus.
“Mere pati ko bhi kaam se nikal dia society waalon ne, mere do bacche hai ghar pe, bina aamdani ke hamara ghar kaise chalega?(My husband has lost his job too, I have two younger children to take care of, How will we survive without money)” says Kaanti who washes dishes and cooks food in the adjacent block to her friend Reena. Kaanti lives with her husband and three children in a makeshift shed just outside the railway colony. Her husband is the local dhobi(washer man) and irons clothes for people living in the society. Their shed was used by her husband in the day to heat coal presses and iron clothes of the people from the railway colony.
Around the announcement of the lockdown, police tore down these makeshift sheds in the nearby areas and asked these people to stop their work and go back home. Kaanti and her family had moved to Indirapuram from Bhagalpur district in Bihar 4 years ago. This pandemic has not only left her family without a job and a regular income but also taken away their roof.
The 21-day lockdown announced by the central movement is forcing millions of daily wage labors all over the country to either go in hiding with their families or flee to their native villages far away.
It is difficult for these families as they have left their native villages years ago to make a new life in the big cities. Most of them don’t have family or resources in these villages anymore.
Families who survive on a daily wage don’t have adequate savings to fall back on as whatever they make goes into the daily needs of their family.
“Most of the maids, drivers, nannies who come from poor impoverished areas like Khora, do not have a safety net to fall back upon, They can be fired anytime even without any pay and don’t have the facilities to protect themselves and their families during this pandemic” said Margaret Kaushik, A resident of the railway colony and nurse at the local hospital.
Despite corona cases rising the maids prefer to come to work if given an option, these maids live in dingy accommodations on the outskirts of the city where social distancing is impossible. There is a scarcity of clean drinking water, let alone water for washing hands often. They don’t have adequate healthcare facilities due to the lack of a secure income.
“Covid-19 is spreads the fastest through infected surfaces, to ensure the safety of our residents we will not allow the maids to enter the society during the 21-day lockdown” says RWA official The maids in my locality were not allowed to enter the society premises after the 21-day lockdown was announced by the prime minister on 25th March 2020.
Uttar Pradesh has 117 people tested positive for corona virus. 30 percent of the state’s population lives below poverty line and does not have a stable income let alone access to healthcare facilities. On an average India has over 50 million undocumented household help including cooks, maids, security guards, nannies etc. Over two thirds of this population is women.
The UP government is planning to provide cash compensations to the people whose income is disrupted due to corona virus. The state government in March announced online payments for the poor and daily wage workers affected by the pandemic.
It is interesting to look at the country’s economy in a global pandemic like such. The daily wage workers and the poor are in the frontline without accessibility to healthcare and sanitation and now even their income.