“No one’s helpers,” West Bengal’s women domestic helpers stare at bleak future as livelihood opportunities deplete amid pandemic

Representational Picture

The predominance of informal employment in the unorganized sector has been one of the central features of the labour market scenario in India. According to the Ministry of Labour, Government of India there are four categories of the unorganized labour force, out of which domestic helpers fall under the ‘service’ category which is the most affected lot and consists of midwives, barbers, fishermen & women, vegetable and fruit sellers, newspaper vendors, cobblers, handicraft artisans, rickshaw pullers, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been economically the most disastrous for this category. In this TCN Ground Report, we spoke to domestic helpers and some social workers, academicians and activists to bring to our readers the problems this community is facing. 

Yumna Mobin | TwoCircles.net

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WEST BENGAL – Shahina is a domestic helper who lives with her old mother-in-law, a paralyzed husband and two children, an 18-year-old daughter, Sameena and a 15-year-old son, Nadim. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, she worked at three places and managed to put together a livelihood for herself. “Out of the three places I have temporarily been fired from two because in one place the apartment people don’t allow me in, as they think I can infect them & in the other one, my employers have got Corona themselves and are very ill,” she told TwoCircles.net. 

“It’s not that they are unkind, maybe I will get infected if I go there,” she said. 

Shahina said that her children also are not able to contribute much. 

Her daughter Sameena is a part-time Mehendi artist. By doing this work, she was able to manage about 800 to 1000 rupees a week. 

However, the pandemic has impacted her work also. 

“Due to the coronavirus, there are hardly any weddings or festivities and the income from her end has depleted,” Shahina said. 

Sameena has finished her 12th standard board exams. “I can’t let her continue her studies because of the financial crisis. My husband is paralyzed and my mother-in-law is too old to contribute anything be it household chores or financially,” she said.  

Shahina has a lot of expenses to cater to. She has to fund the education of her two children. Her mother-in-law is hypertensive and also suffers from a heart condition. Her paralyzed husband needs constant medication and things like adult diapers, which are expensive and burdensome for Shahina and her family.

She said that the coronavirus pandemic has badly impacted their livelihood and she can’t find ways and means to sustain her family. “Future looks bleak,” she said. 

Another domestic helped Renu, lives with her husband and three sons, aged 19, 15 and 7 respectively. 

“My husband is an alcoholic and a drug addict and contributes almost nothing to the home. It’s like he is there at home, but not even a family member for us anymore,” she said ruefully. 

Renu worked as a domestic helper for two families and both dismissed amid the coronavirus scare. “My eldest son used to run errands and work part-time at a butcher’s shop. We somehow had enough to eat and I admitted my younger son to a local English medium school. I wanted him to study but now we are in a lot of crises. Because of my eldest son’s little income, we just manage one to two meals a day. There is not even money enough to recharge our touch screen-wala (Smart) phone for my youngest son to do his online class,” she said. 

The lockdown has been painful for their lives.” Like my employers, the rich and the office people are working from home and getting their salary. What do we do? How can we work from home?” she laments. 

The common problems in the service category of unskilled unorganized labour are low real wages, poor living conditions and poor working conditions. There are issues of seasonal unemployment, contractual employment, atypical work relations, absence of social security and welfare, and a very high amount of negation of social standards and rights of these workers. 

“For the workers of the unorganized sector, some of them do fall under BPL programmes or the Jan Dhan Yojana or were beneficiaries of some cash transfers, the previous year when there was a national lockdown. Of course, that was not sufficient for survival but at least for the sake of tokenism, it was done,” Sayoni Choudhuri Patra, Assistant Professor, Loreto College, Kolkata told TwoCircles.net. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested the employers to pay their domestic helpers for some time, and most of the people did comply with it. However, Prof. Patra said, “this time the lockdown has been more erratic and these people have not been beneficiaries of any kind like the previous time.” 

“Whether or not they are being given their salary, fully or partly, by their employers is very uncertain. Spouses of domestic helpers are also unskilled or contractual labourers, so employment is erratic or absent for them as well. The second wave especially has been very brutal, and the uncertainty and vulnerability of these people have become much higher. Even more because like the privileged classes they cannot even fight for medical facilities,” Prof. Patra said. 

Pushpendu Sardar, a social worker & activist, from a West Bengal NGO called ‘Sondhi’, told TwoCircles.net that one major consequence of the lockdown was the stoppage of trains, which was the main cause of unemployment of domestic helpers and workers of the unorganized sector. 

“Most of the workers, and especially women workers working as nannies, ayas, care-takers & nurses travel up and down the city every day or every few days for work. The kind of unskilled service they provide is only availed in cities. Many of these women who can work in smaller allied industries like vegetables, small fisheries, poultry or dairy farms, are not able to do so because of the same reasons- the rise in cases, resulting in erratic lockdowns and the losses suffered by these industries due to this,” Sardar said. 

Sardar further said the lockdown has severely affected the women of the rural areas especially because of social evils & their husbands’ indulgence in drinking and gambling. “This is also one reason for domestic violence of these women domestic helpers, trapped in their houses because of the pandemic,” he added. 

Prof. Choudhuri Patra further said that lockdown is not just affecting domestic workers alone but their children as well and the problem is much of a women’s issue. 

“Their children’s education is at stake. The future that they were trying to build for their children has become very bleak. This is because online classes at the government schools’ level are very marginal. Not only is it an unemployment issue, but involves a big human capital risk,” Prof Patra said. 

Prof Patra further said that “this part of the population that would have come under the organized sector from these particular strata in the next 10 years has fallen into the poverty trap even more than it already is.” 

“If the unskilled unorganized worker is a single mother the problem is even more as if she gets infected or happens to die the child’s future is finished. With the type of circumstances, chances are highest that such children would enter the labour market as child labourers or worse, get trafficked,” she said.  

For Sardar, he feels that the “government never really does anything for poor people ever.” 

“It just continues to function in its own way with its schemes and yojanas that never really reach them. If anything is done at all, it is a little bit just before elections, otherwise nothing. This is the reason why individuals like us have started working for them,” Sardar added. 

Sardar’s NGO ‘Sondhi’ runs 14 community kitchens, each of which provides food to around 400 people each, prioritizing children, pregnant women & elderly senior citizens in the rural areas of the Sundarbans.