Bengaluru’s domestic workers stare at uncertain future as jobs dry up during COVID-19 pandemic

While the government’s relief package may soften the blow, it is the lack of work that has left many helpless

Suraj is often seeing cycling his way through the bylanes of a residential layout in East Bengaluru, stopping when he finds a resident near his or her car. “Do you need someone to wash the car?”, he asks, in the hope of getting some work. The Nepali national says his wife, who used to work as a domestic help, has lost work during the pandemic, and he too has lost a big chunk of employers.

It is a similar story across many households of domestic workers and related professions — cooks, car washers and the like. If the first wave of COVID-19 and the sudden lockdown was a rude shock for most of the unorganised sector, the second wave has lent another blow.

Geetha Menon, from the Domestic Workers’ Rights Union, said the intensity of the pandemic that 2021 ushered in has been made worse by the neglect on the part of the government and employers.

On Wednesday, the State government announced financial aid for various sectors. Domestic workers will get relief of ₹2,000 each. While this may soften the blow, it is the lack of work that has left many helpless.

In June 2020, Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU), Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmika Sangha (BBGS) and Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union released the findings of a study that pointed out that an estimated four lakh domestic workers live and work in Bengaluru, a majority of them women.

Up until the first phase of the imposition of lockdown in India, while restrictions were enforced, domestic workers went to work as usual till the end of March. They were aware of the precautions announced by the government, but their employers insisted they come for work disregarding any concerns for safety, it said.

“Some of the owners paid the salary for March for the number of days worked, while a few employers paid full month’s salary for March. April was totally without work and money for domestic workers. With rents and bills to pay, most of them could barely manage one meal a day,” stated the authors.

According to the study, 2,084 (about 87%) of the workers surveyed were told not to come for work since the lockdown in March 2020.They were not sure if and when they would be called to work again. As many as 341 workers in the areas surveyed (87%) and 150 workers in the areas surveyed by Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union lost their jobs entirely during the lockdown.

Around 91% of workers lost their salaries for the month of April, while 50% of all workers above the age of 50 lost their jobs during the lockdown.

The survey was conducted in the first two weeks of May, covering 2,396 domestic workers in Bengaluru.

“From August-September, some returned to work, but there has been a drastic reduction in the number of houses workers have now, and income also reduced. In some cases, those who still have jobs are told to water the garden or clean the compound and paid for that. Now, with this lockdown, it is complete turmoil again,” said Ms. Menon.


She also pointed to the diktats by apartment associations insisting on vaccination, when some of them took an initiative to get domestic workers and allied personnel one dose and let them fend for themselves for the second.

“Many big companies have said work from home will last two to three years. So people have gone back home and many apartments are empty. Employability has come down. A lot of people, who were cooking for bachelors and PG accommodations, are also out of work,” said Ms. Menon, adding that unlike last year’s mass exodus, most migrant workers have stayed put in cities.

Mary, a native of a village near Mysuru, has been working as a domestic help since three decades. But it has been nearly a month since she is out of work. Her husband, a security guard, too has been asked to stay at home.

“We have no salaries now. I was working in three houses. The apartment is not allowing us now and even some of our employers are scared to have us because they have senior citizens at home. We are in dire straits and our entire colony has cases like us, of people out of work,” said Mary, a resident of Arasu Colony in south Bengaluru.

Parvathi who works as a cook, recently lost her friend Chitra, also a cook, to COVID-19. “Her employer had COVID-19 and for one week she didn’t go to work. Then the employer called her back. Later, she developed a fever, and suddenly, I got a call that she had passed away. The doctors confirmed it was COVID-19. We don’t know if she got it from her employer, or because she was vending on the roadside during her spare time,” she said. Chitra was 35 and had two children.

Now, Parvathi, who has not been working since the lockdown was imposed by the State government, is afraid.

“My employer wants me to come to work. She said she’ll take permission from the apartment. But there are no buses [because of the lockdown] and they’re not allowing anyone inside. Two of my old employers relocated after the lockdown. One more did not call me back as they have elderly people at home. Now, in the only house I work in, I worked for three months, and then the lockdown happened. I don’t know how I’ll ask for a salary next month,” she said.

Ms. Menon said they have started distributing medical kits to communities now, with a basic thermometer and oximeter.

“We are trying to see if we can build confidence and help them be more aware of the actual symptoms. The fear of vaccination is also major,” she said.

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Sagar Biswas

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