‘Wish we got paid leave’: Without work, Bengaluru’s domestic workers are struggling

Renuka Devi, who lives in Bengaluru, is staring at an uncertain future. For the next two weeks of the lockdown, the 32-year-old, who works as domestic help, is not going to get her monthly salary. Renuka works in multiple households to earn enough to run and manage her household. With the lockdown, several of her employers have refused to pay her and she is struggling to sustain her livelihood. 

Just like many women across India, who work as domestic help, Renuka too is struggling to buy ration and does not have the privilege of social distancing in times of a pandemic. 

“I work in six homes and of them, one of my employers is paying me during leave and the others have stopped paying me because I am not working. I have only Rs 4,000 to manage for the whole month as my employers have paid me only for the first week of March, after which they asked me to stay at home,” says Renuka Devi, who is also a resident of Bengaluru’s Murgeshpalya.

Speaking to TNM, Geeta Menon, who is a member of Stree Jagruthi Samiti, an organization that help domestic workers, says she has received many calls from concerned domestic help.

“In many areas, these women have been asked to come to work. When they refused, they were terminated from employment. Many of them have concerns about whether they can go to work if certain safety measures are taken. Domestic workers are not legally recognized as a labour force. Hence, even governments can’t implement mandatory paid leave,” she adds.

Geeta also received calls from concerned workers whose employers had come back from countries abroad and still asked them to come to work. “Some of them have had to tell their employers that it is unsafe. They are aware but those employing them have no qualms about putting them at risk. A paid leave is something they need the most,” she says.

Struggle to pay rent

Renuka says that her employers are mostly men who work in IT companies and live in the GM Palya and Thippasandra. “When they told me to stop coming to work, they said I won’t be paid because I will be on leave. I could not say anything because I know I can’t ask for payment when I am not working. But I am struggling to arrange for funds to pay my rent this month (April),” Renuka adds.

Jayalakshmi, a 42-year-old resident of a GM Palya, works in seven households in Indiranagar and New Thippasandra. Jayalakshmi had taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh when her daughter became pregnant. Jayalakshmi had borrowed money from a local money lender. In addition, she began taking on more work to pay off the loans and also sustain a livelihood. Jayalakshmi’s husband abandoned her 21 years ago and now, she says she has no one to turn to.

“Now I am getting only Rs 2,000 from one of my employers. The other households are not paying me for the days I was not working because of the lockdown. I live in a small room and the rent is Rs 3,000. I have to pay the rent and also pay the interest on the loan I took. I don’t know how I’m going to without a job or pay,” Jayalakshmi adds.

"How to manage housing, ration?"

Meenakshiamma, a resident of Kalyan Nagar, says her employers pay her at the beginning of the month. Due to this payment cycle, she does not have money for ration and rent for April. Now, she has been asked to vacate the 20ftx20ft room that she lives in along with her mother, as the owner of the house wants to demolish the structure.

“Because of the disease that’s been spreading, the owner told us that the small rooms were unhygienic. We keep our homes clean but we can’t help it if the drain is right next to our house. Now I have to look for a place to stay in one week because the owner thinks we are unhygienic and can spread the infection. Without any salary, how can I pay the deposit for a new house, let along pay rent and buy ration?” she asks.

Meenakshiamma and her mother have been depending on the food packets from Indira Canteens. However, she says that losing her house during the lockdown would be difficult. “I have asked the landowner to consider evicting us after the lockdown is lifted since he can’t demolish the structure until all services are open. We are hoping he will consider our request,” she adds.

Like Meenakshiamma, Shifa, a 36-year-old domestic help, whose employers live in Frazer Town, says that many of her employers told her to stop coming to work altogether even after the lockdown period is over. “I charge Rs 3,000 to 4,000 per household depending on how big it is. I lived Shivajinagar earlier but a week before the lockdown, we moved to RT Nagar. I told them about the shift. Initially, all of them said they would pay me but on Sunday three of my employers told me to stop coming to work even after the lockdown,” Shifa says.

Shifa lives with her three daughters as her husband passed away three years ago. Without the guarantee of the income, she is now facing the risk of getting evicted from the new home she moved into. “I don’t know how I am going to buy ration. My oldest daughter has asthma. She is also prone to falling sick. I don’t have much savings since my husband died and we depend on my income for ration. I am worried about this all day. I wish my employers were more considerate and gave me paid leave,” she added.

“What social distancing?”

Meenakshiamma and Jayalakshmi scoff at the term social distancing. Both women say they have heard it so many times and know that they cannot afford it, that it seems like an insult when asked to maintain social distancing.

"We live in houses that are smaller than our employers' bedrooms. We have our family members living with us. Some of us have children. So many people in my area live in crowded houses. What is this social distancing? How can these people be so insensitive towards us? Are we not human beings? How can we buy detergent, soap, handwash and some new liquid to clean hands (hand sanitiser) without money?" Meenakshiamma questioned. 

Jayalakshmi too says that unless her employers are willing to let her live in their homes, there is no way she could maintain social distancing. "Let the government provide us with facilities where we don't have to live in a cramped space. Then we can maintain social distancing. By constantly talking about it, it is only reinforced that I cannot even afford to protect myself. What should I do?" she asks.  

What can employers do?

Speaking to TNM, Harini Raghavan, co-founder of Multiversal Advisory, says that paying domestic help during the lockdown is of utmost importance and their employers must also take on the responsibility of ensuring the same. 

It has been mentioned time and again that people from low-income backgrounds do not have the privilege of social distancing and deducting their pay or terminating their employment during a lockdown is doubly cruel. "In fact, we are asking people to pay their domestic workers in a lump sum so that they can access better facilities related to hygiene. Social distancing is a challenge but by creating awareness, our house help can also understand what to do and what not to do. This is very crucial," she said. 

Harini says that although, many residents have given their domestic help paid leave, there are still a lot of them who don't, which is why she decided to start an awareness campaign.

By Bindu Desetty

“Multiversal Advisory set up this campaign to help household help to gain access a few basic rights in the time of a lockdown, like social distancing, job security and remuneration. We are appealing to the corporate fraternity since this demographic has the highest impact and would best relate to this initiative, to take it back home, to friends, etc,” Harini adds. 

“This is a social conditioning exercise. Unfortunately, there is no law in the country that makes any of this compulsory.  So, talking about it and creating awareness becomes primordial. Working with the corporation and issuing an advisory would be next on the agenda,” she says. 

She has started a petition on change.org and plans to create awareness campaigns targeting employees in the corporate sector.  

Demand for government intervention

Geeta Menon says that on behalf of the organisation Stree Jagruthi Samiti, she has sent a petition to the Labour Department asking them to issue an advisory to the employers of domestic workers.

“We sent the petition two weeks ago. We want the government to issue an advisory or a directive asking employers to pay domestic help. So many of them are worried about whether they will have jobs after the lockdown too. There are concerns about safety and security, which is why many of them want to go back to their home towns. The labour department is also busy with organizing aide for migrant workers but this should also be prioritized,” she adds.

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