Lockdown woes: Uncertainty and fear grip domestic workers as the month ends


With no assured pay and mounting debts, domestic workers in Chennai are distressed. [Representational image, taken before outbreak of COVID-19]. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

The first day of the month usually excites working people as they look forward to their salaries, but like so many other things, COVID-19 has changed that too. A large number of people are dreading the commencement of the month, as they are not likely to receive their salaries, even as they have to pay their rent, utilities and other bills. Primary among them are domestic workers, many of whom have already lost their jobs as a fallout of the coronavirus outbreak in the city.

It is a fact that most gated communities and responsible resident welfare associations in Chennai have promised to pay domestic workers even if they have not been able to report to work. However, a lot of owners have either fired the workers or temporarily relieved them, leaving them in dire straits.

There is also another section of owners who have forced their workers to report to duty, defying the strict orders of the lockdown.

Tales of uncertainty

Kalpana (name changed) had continued to report to duty at the house in Mogappair where she worked as a domestic help until two days ago, as her employer had threatened to fire her if she missed work. She would walk for two kilometres to reach the place.

“I have not worn gloves or a mask for the five days that I worked during the lockdown,” says Kalpana, who, following repeated advice from her parents and other workers, stopped working two days ago.  “I did not know I was putting the lives of others at stake by going out. All I cared for was my salary, without which I cannot feed a toddler at home,” she says. Now, as the new month starts, she doesn’t know if she will receive her salary. 

M Manickavalli’s employer had followed social distancing strictly and asked her not to report to work until the lockdown ends. But he had not mentioned anything about her salary. Even if he wants to pay her now, he cannot do so as 65-year-old Manickavalli had never given her bank account details to him. “I cannot skip paying the rent or other loans. The thought of running a household with zero inflow frightens me,” she says. She lives with her daughter and a grandchild. 

Tales like Kalpana’s or Manickavalli’s are common across the city, where domestic workers are grappling with uncertainty and fear. A few of them do not even possess a bank account, so that even if their employers wished to make an online transfer, they would not be able to do so.

“Lockdown and inability to report to work should not be a reason to not pay the domestic workers. Employers shouldn’t fire workers during these difficult situations. As a social gesture, landlords/house owners should either waive off the rental amounts or give the tenants a few months’ time to pay the rent. It is the thought of paying rent that is forcing many workers to vacate their temporary homes and walk to their native lands in many parts of the country,” said Gomathi C, project coordinator, Aid India.

Many of the domestic workers do not possess a ration card to avail the financial aid. Credits: Flickr

Counting the days

Daily and weekly labourers are probably as badly hit or even worse off, because they will most certainly miss pay till they resume work. The weekly income of Bhuvaneswari E (35) is completely dependent on the number of clothes she irons in a tailoring shop. “It varies. I get paid Rs 6 for a saree and Rs 5 for salwar set. But I iron all the clothes stitched by the tailor,” said Bhuvaneswari, who earns between Rs 50 and Rs 150 a day. 

Now that there will be no income from the source, Bhuvaneswari, a single mother, has to rely on the provisions promised by the government. The Tamil Nadu government has promised to provide essential commodities and Rs 1000 for all the rice ration cardholders. Pinning hopes on the government’s promise, Bhuvaneswari has been cooking very little to ensure that the three kilos of rice that she bought ten days ago lasts for the longest time possible. 

Bhuvaneswari’s situation is not the worst, as she holds a ration card at least. An entire set of workers in Chennai do not possess smart ration cards for multiple reasons.  Kadhir S, who works as a domestic worker at Thoraipakkam, is one such individual. As he held a card at this native in Tiruchy, he could not get one in Chennai. Now the card in his hometown has also expired, as he has not used it for years. 

The state government has also said that workers registered under the labour welfare boards can be given the aid, even if they do not possess a ration card. “But the government has specified only two groups under the welfare boards: construction workers and auto drivers. From cooks to domestic workers, there are 15 more groups under the welfare boards. Why were they not included?” questions S Palaniammal, Organising Secretary of Pen Tholilalar Sangam (Women Workers Union). Organisations such as Women Workers Union are collecting money to help workers at distress.

If any employer is forcing a worker to report to duty, an anonymous complaint can be lodged by dialling 100.

Women Workers Union can be contacted at at +91 96009 84671

It is important that the state government provides answers to these questions that are in the minds of hundreds working in unorganised sectors of the state, and finds ways to make their lives easier during this unprecedented lockdown emergency. 

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About Laasya Shekhar 287 Articles
Laasya Shekhar is an independent journalist based in Chennai with previous stints in Newslaundry, Citizen Matters and Deccan Chronicle. Laasya holds a Masters degree in Journalism from Bharathiar University and has written extensively on environmental issues, women and child rights, and other critical social and civic issues. She tweets at @plaasya.