Migrants and domestic labour worst hit by COVID-19

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Migrant workers including daily wage labourers, domestic helpers, hawkers and marginalised groups are the worst hit by the Coronavirus crisis. It’s the responsibility of the state and even their employers to ensure they make it through these trying times, says Sonal Aggarwal.

The national lockdown has severely affected lives of millions of people in the country. However, the worst hit are those who belong to the lower economic strata of the society, migrant workers including daily wage labourers, domestic helpers, hawkers and marginalised groups, whose fringe existence is threatened with the restrictions that have come along with the lockdown.

These groups of people were living fragile lives in the first place. Living and working thousands of miles away from their families and homes, the poor of the country have been hit badly due to the COVID-19 crisis. With little or no savings, pending dues and closure of ‘economical’ options for food, the Coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc in ways more than one.

Resident of a temporary shanty in an ‘illegal’ settlement in Bandra, 34-year-old Rashmi Dash came to Mumbai ten years ago with her husband and two toddlers. The lack of opportunities to make a living in her native village in Balangir district in Odisha had compelled her husband, Ramesh, to leave the village and migrate to a big city to survive. Mumbai seemed a good option as Ramesh knew many people in the city who had already migrated and were working in Mumbai.

It still wasn’t easy for the couple to leave behind their ailing parents but staying back would have meant abject poverty, even death. When the couple reached Mumbai, their lives changed for the better. Rashmi started working in homes as a domestic maid and Ramesh got a job as a waiter in a South-Indian restaurant in Bandra. “We were fortunate that the village brothers helped us settle in this big city, it would have been very difficult otherwise,” says Ramesh.

Migrant house-help unsure of future

Rashmi gradually increased the number of houses for work. “I have always done my job with utter honesty and hard work. Otherwise how will memsaab trust me? It’s only through word of mouth that I got other big houses for work,” says Rashmi. “We were a happy family, able to teach our children in decent schools and send money back home for our parents.” Now, with the lockdown, the couple is, unsure of their future.

When the lockdown was being announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 25 March 2020, Rashmi, her husband, 11-year-old son and 13-year old daughter were watching television together in their tiny ‘homely’ shanty. The announcement left the four confused, as they looked at each other, wondering what it meant for them, like thousands others in the city.

Rashmi immediately called all her memsaabs, also clueless, to ask if she should come to work in the following days. Ramesh also called his restaurant manager and was almost certain the restaurant will be open despite the lockdown as “where will people with no other provision for food eat during the lockdown!”

Unable to grasp the severity of the situation and the uncertainty of their future, the family decided to take each day at a time. “That’s what we have done all our lives anyway, taking each day at a time. We cannot afford to plan for long-term anyway,” Rashmi murmurs in a shocked stupor. The siblings were just happy that they weren’t supposed to go to school for a ‘few days’ now!

Distress migration is the rule

Things are not different for thousands of other women who have spent decades in Mumbai and other big cities across the country, working in homes, offices, schools, malls, hotels, hospitals, etc. as cleaners and domestic help. Most of these women belong to the poverty-stricken states such as West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh where distress migration is a commonplace occurrence.

Within a week of the lockdown, Beena, a 22-year-old maid cleaning homes in a posh society in Delhi, was already worried about her diminishing savings. “I didn’t have much saved to start with as I was sending money home every month to my ailing mother.” With an alcoholic father at home, in a village in Coochbehar district in West Bengal, Beena would send a portion of the money to a trusting neighbour. “My neighbour kaka would then give that money to my mother, in the absence of my father.”

With the ‘Stay At Home’ order, Beena is worried about earning money for herself; forget sending it to her parents. And, even if she survives the lockdown, she isn’t sure if she’ll get any work after things return to normalcy. “It was so sudden and so stringent that I had no time to prepare,” she says.

In rural areas, the situation is not that bad as the local government has been providing ration at home, cash assistance, health care, even food with support from the civil society and donations. So, the lockdown hasn’t disrupted their lives to a great extent. With state-assisted provisions for food and health care, the rural Indian is better equipped to endure the lockdown.

The urban pockets in the country, especially the highly-urban metro cities, primarily have ‘citizens’ and ‘migrants’. Those engaged in private or government jobs, have ‘secure’ jobs. They have been given ‘moratorium’ by the banks to defer payment of loan installments, credits, etc. Most of them also have decent investments and savings to pull through such critical times.

Urban poor hit the worst

It’s the urban poor who have been hit the hardest. For the likes of Rashmi and Beena, while the lockdown is important to save lives, their fragile existence is equally at risk because of the lockdown. The dependence of the urban poor on the ‘urban ecosystem’ has been completely dismantled with the lockdown. Their hand-to-mouth existence has only added to their woes.

Fifty-two year old Anna K, who was working as a personal nurse and caretaker to a lonely 80-year-old woman — her children in Singapore — didn’t know the lockdown will leave her jobless when she needed it the most. The daughter of the octogenarian called her within a few days of the lockdown announcement to inform her that she had been ‘relieved’ of her duties. The fact that COVID-19 is a highly-contagious infection and Anna’s job involved a lot of handling and touching the patient meant she was a big risk to the health and well-being of the patient. “Just like that they told me to leave…without thinking where will I go and how will I survive in these tough times,” says Anna, a native of Kerala and working in Jaipur.

Like Anna, many nurses and care-takers, working and living with the patient or with the families have been left in the lurch. Not only are they without a source of income but also without a place to stay. “I was told to make arrangements for myself within seven days and leave the house. I cannot even take a train to Kerala because the train services have been suspended,” says Anna wiping tears from her face as uncertainty looms over her future.

The lockdown has been much worse for the migrant workers in urban centres of the country. With little or no liquidity, some are selling their jewelry, other taking loans from their ‘masters’ some even borrowing money from their slightly better-off friends. Their problems are real and now, right in their face. It’s the responsibility of the state and even their employers to ensure they make it through these trying times. In the absence of both, it’s their resilience that will pass them by.


Sonal Aggarwal

Sonal Aggarwal is a dedicated volunteer and rural activist with www.thewomansurvivor.com – an initiative of DraftCraft International to protect and empower women by bringing on one platform the latest on rights and issues, strategic case studies, state initiatives and informed legal opinions.

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