When the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus was announced on March 24, a 40-year-old Bengali woman, with her husband and son, started walking to her village 100 km from Kolkata, where they lived in a rented house. The woman managed to reach the village and was, thus, able to access ration, her Jan Dhan account, and help from a local self-help group.

The woman’s story is similar to those of other migrant workers who were forced to walk, cycle or hitchhike long distances to reach their hometowns from the cities where they work. Unlike the Bengali woman, however, not everyone was this fortunate.

We spoke to 79 female domestic workers living in cities like Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune, during the second phase of the lockdown – from April 24 to May 1. The women belonged to the age group of 21-65. Most had been married, with close to 80% currently married. Fifty-three percent of respondents was illiterate and migrants accounted for 27%.

Most of the stories we heard were dismal.

We found that the lockdown has left a big hole in the pockets of the domestic workers, as many struggled to buy essentials. About a quarter of the women received no salary for March even though they had worked for most of the month. There were many others whose salaries were cut for the days they could not work. In some cases, employers were willing to pay full wages but the women were unable to collect the money due to travel restrictions.

Overall, 44% of respondents got less than their usual salary for March. The women who saw a drop in pay saw a decline of 70% in March. We had previously presented evidence of the precarious life of the domestic workers. The current situation makes such conditions inevitable.

In this poignant video, women talk about the fear of getting fired from their jobs if they demand their deserving salaries. Add to this the fact that many domestic workers’ husbands are daily-wage workers – autorickshaw drivers, contract workers or plumbers. Many of the respondents’ husbands also had no income for March.

Double standards

Kent warns you that “her [maid] hands may be infected.” But who infected her hands? This quote by a domestic worker to Barkha Dutt demonstrates the irony of their situation “yeh virus plane vale laye aur sadak par gareeb aadmi hai cycle par. Yeh kya insaaf?”

The advertisement and the quote demonstrate to us contrasts between the employer and the employed, and highlight that physical distancing is only for the privileged. Bathrooms are perhaps the one crucial point in the house where all humans – and therefore, microbes – pass through. With an average of six members per household, 20% of the women we spoke to did not have their private bathrooms.

While we did not collect data on salaries for April in this study, we can imagine that the situation would only have been more dire. What we do know is that at the time of our interview in the second half of April, 25% of the women were already working. This highlights not only the value and the need for domestic workers, but also the desperation of domestic workers.

The advertisement by Kent RO discouraging people from allowing their house helps to knead dough, as 'their hands may be dirty'. Credit: Instagram screenshot

One of our interviewers repeatedly got calls back from the interviewees requesting if we could pass on some information of work to them. How does one survive poverty, disease and discrimination? When individuals fail to help, does the state pitch in?

Unequal distribution

Loss of income naturally leads to worry about food supplies. Forty five percent of our participants reported that they did not have enough to feed their families. Only 10% of those in distress reported getting help from others. Less than half got free ration from the public distribution system or other government sources, while half got no free ration at all. The distress related to food was felt predominantly by those who did not get ration from the PDS. Other surveys also confirm this.

A 29-year-old woman who worked as a house help in Hapur told us, “ration has been distributed based on one’s relationship with the head of the mohallas. Even after the complaint has been made to the concerned authority, no action has been taken.”

We heard this story repeat a few times. The other trouble with accessing rations was that many migrant workers did not have their ration cards. Additionally, the amount of ration was insufficient for families consisting of more than five members.

We found that some states, like Maharashtra, have been comparatively more efficient in making sure rations reach the people. In Kolkata, Below Poverty Line cardholders got rice and wheat for free, whereas Above Poverty Line cardholders got only rice at a subsidised rate. In Ahmedabad, BPL cardholders got ration, but APL cardholders did not get anything. Some of the workers wanted oil, pulses and milk so that they could make decent meals for their children.

Economist Reetika Khera suggests that given our excess grain supply, grain should be supplied free of cost by the government without obsessing about ration cards.

The government has fared worse on cash transfers, with only 18% reportedly getting cash transfer from the government. Even though 15% of the participants had a Jan Dhan account, 58.3% of them did not get any cash from the government. In Ahmedabad, a participant reported her inability to open a Jan Dhan account because the bank had fulfilled the target of 100 accounts. Jan Dhan Yojana, plagued with problems, has not brought the much-touted succour it promised.

Gendered experience

Lockdown has also affected a range of other issues. Some of the women complained that they were not getting LPG subsidies during the lockdown. Further, participants staying in the red zone area were stuck at home and unable to access medical assistance.

A queue in Bhopal to receive food during the nationwide lockdown. Credit: Press Trust of India

Even though domestic workers, as per the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008, are eligible for various government schemes that assure health insurance and pension among other benefits, we find that almost no one was enrolled in any of it. It is not surprising since the hassle of getting enrolled in these schemes includes getting certificates from resident welfare associations, employers, trade unions, and the police. This deters women from claiming membership.

There were two instances where the women’s husbands had abandoned them during the lockdown. One woman who was staying alone in a rented house told us that she had not eaten for the last two days. Another woman was staying at her uncle’s house with two children, but her ration card, Aadhaar card, and birth certificates of the son were held by her in-laws.

We asked our respondents if they thought the lockdown was aggravating domestic violence. Around 10% of our sample felt that violence against women has increased in their neighbourhood. In fact, two of our respondents reported being victims of domestic violence.

Despite the hardships faced by the women, some shared with us instances that brought them relief. Rajni, a 34-year-old woman who worked in four houses, told us that she had been a victim of domestic abuse since the day she got married. But with no alcohol available during the lockdown, her husband had stopped beating her.

Others undertook creative activities like knitting blankets or making up innovative games to keep their children busy. Another positive outcome was neighbours reaching out to each other for help with essentials and mental health support.

For us, the biggest surprise was when many women over the phone told us, “Thank you for calling and listening to us. There is no one with whom we can talk.” Telling their stories is the least we can do.

Sunaina Goel and Pragya Sen are research assistants at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Pritha Dev and Akshaya Vijayalakshmi are faculty members at the institute.