It was the first thing on her to-do list as restrictions eased with Lockdown 5. Manjula recharged her phone for Rs 400. “I may have to skip a meal for this” she laments as the expense eats into her non-existent savings. “But my Amma should be able to call now” is her hope as she waits for her employers to call her back to work.
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Working as a domestic help has been more than a decade of Manjula’s life. She turned up at homes everyday like clockwork, to clean them without a day off. She stayed behind to help when they celebrated weddings and parties, without making any demands. These were families she had taken care of and not just as a maid. They had a bond, or so she thought.
In the twenty minutes Manjula spoke about life during the Covid-19 lockdown, it was hard to tell what hurt her more – the financial repercussions of not having a job and income for three months, or the fact that she hadn’t even heard from her employers during the time. “Not even a call”. There was a world of pain in those words.
The 33-year-old mother of two worked in four homes and made about Rs 8000 a month. But, as the nation went on a lockdown on March 24th, like lakhs of wage workers, Manjula’s daily routine came to a pause. Her employers told her that her service was to stop tentatively.
Manjula, who was schooled up to class 4, said “I never felt the need for finding another job; never demanded a salary raise from my employer. I thought it was how I would support my family for the rest of my life.” Now, she is disillusioned with her choices.
As the repercussions of the lockdown unravel, blue collar workers cut adrift by their employers are struggling to understand their callousness. Not just Manjula. Over the last few weeks, we have spoken to a number of informal workers including garment factory workers, domestic helps, auto and cab drivers, shop attendants, construction workers to name a few professions.
Everyone we interviewed – to understand how Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown had affected their lives — narrated the same story. Some blamed their karmic cycle, a few blamed the government, while others didn’t know who was to blame.
Without substantial social security, living hand to mouth their entire lives, bee-lining at ration stores or NGO’s distribution centres, it has been a life sans dignity for many. Although many complained that they received neither partial nor full payment from their employers, years of association with the employer had developed a sense of personal bond with them.
“They feel that taking up the matter on the legal front will spoil not only their future prospects of employment but also disrupt their cordial relation with the employer,” Yashodha, a social activist said.
A few daily wagers said that the lockdown gave them an opportunity to spend more time with the family. Otherwise it was impossible, given their daily working routine of 12 – 16 hours.
The other side to being cooped up at home — without an income and depleting food and daily essentials — created an environment of stress and led to disputes in families. Some conflicts lead to domestic abuse, requiring intervention from neighbours and the police.
The continuous advertisements for ‘Loans against Gold’ on Kannada television channels, prompted both men and women to pledge their gold assets to raise cash. They weren’t easy choices.
“I don’t know if it is the right decision to pledge the family gold. We don’t know if the interest rates are reasonable or blatantly high. I don’t know if I can ever retrieve it. But for now, to fill my family’s stomach, this had to be done,” Lakshmi, a garment worker said.
The desperation is not hidden. In the course of the telephonic interview, breaking down a couple of times, Shilpa – a garment factory worker — listed her cooking, and cleaning talents and offered her service as a domestic help with a cutback of 30%.
Women have been fighting several battles these past few months – the pandemic, and the fight to keep their families afloat. Many men, while worrying about the same issues, passed the buck to their wives after liquor shops opened.
These barely literate women managed to emerge as the first line of defence against the virus. They scurried information about social distancing, masks and hygiene to keep their families safe. All this with only mobiles and television as sources of information. The only sign of government in their localities was the Hoysala patrol car.
Despite shouldering most of the burden, women said they were given no role in decision-making for their household or in voicing out dissent against domestic violence from their male counterparts.
“I have no social standing of my own. When my husband’s ego is hurt, I am expected to borrow money from my relatives, stand in line at the ration shop. If I don’t, I’ll have to bear the brunt of it” said Priya.
Geeta Menon, a senior activist in the sector, pointed out how lockdown only reinforced stereotypes, and that women had internalised it to suffer violence.
As restrictions ease and the world limps back to activity, thousands of wage earners in the city hope to return to a semblance of normal. Their dream of the new normal is humble: work, salary, food, shelter and perhaps, a better life for their children. It’s a small ask. For every month’s salary that an employer withheld during the lockdown, one of their dreams went up in the air.
There is no template for us to follow – just a conscience. Simple things can make a difference:
Do not withhold their salaries. Even if you can pay only a portion of it, because of your own difficult circumstances, it would make a difference. Direct them to accurate information. Help your local government reach essentials to them. Work with your corporators, MLAs etc.
But most importantly, call them. There are many like Manjula, waiting to hear from you.
Read other articles in the Ground Reality series here.