Some people aren’t always recognised as people- especially those who are different from us in some way. As middle and upper-class, privileged, urban-dwelling Indians (which many of us reading this post may be) we tend to look through the people who don’t do the things we do: who don’t go to office, work on computers, hang out at cafes, restaurants or bars, take Ubers, order from Swiggy, Zomato and Amazon etc. In the busy rush of our lives, we may fail to recognise other people: construction workers, drivers, delivery agents, factory workers, vegetable and fruit sellers, sanitation workers, domestic workers, and many other fellow human beings. The irony of this is that the people we don’t appreciate are actually those who make it possible for us to live our office-going, Uber-taking, food-ordering lives.
If there is one thing the lockdown has shown us, it is the value of the work that these unacknowledged people do. This post is part of a series on Stories of Hope that helps us recognise these fellow human beings and find ways to support them during the COVID 19 pandemic. Here, I’ll be writing specifically about domestic workers.
How important is domestic work?
Pre-lockdown, it was normal for me to get home after work, laze around a little bit, read a book, watch Netflix and maybe eat something nice. I didn’t really give thought to many essential things: Has the food been cooked? Has the bathroom been cleaned? Has the waste been taken out?
Today, I’m struggling to chop onions without tears coming out of my eyes and trying to get that onion smell off my fingers, making sure all the nooks and crannies in my room are dusted, figuring out exactly how to clean the sides of tiles in the toilet and understanding that sweeping (jharoo and pochha) every day is a workout in itself. I thought this work from home thing would be relaxing, but I’m actually finding myself busier than ever with housework. (And, actually, the work I’m doing should be multiplied by four, because all four of us in the family need to work to keep the house going.)
Today, I’m realising exactly how much work the domestic workers who come to my house do and how much their work is devalued. It’s easy to scold them and underpay them when we don’t recognise that the essential work they do frees up our time to have the lifestyle we want.
What about being human?
What is scarier is that, we haven’t just devalued their work, we also have a tendency to dehumanise domestic workers. What I mean is that we forget that the didis and bhaiyas/dadas who come to our houses are not machines designed to do our bidding: they are people with emotions, joys, troubles, plans, families, friends and lives of their own.
Often, domestic workers are labelled as ‘unhygienic’, or ‘lazy’. By doing this we apply stereotypes without thinking about the complexity of their circumstances, thoughts and feelings. In other words, we deprive them of the humanity that we give to ourselves. What do we actually know of the lives they lead?
Human beings facing difficult times
There is one thing we know right now, though: it is likely that domestic workers are going through a very difficult period right now. Some of the problems they are facing have been covered by the media and while others come up in everyday conversation. Due to the lockdown and the contagious nature of COVID 19, many employers have stopped domestic workers from coming to their homes. On one hand, this is a good thing because it protects domestic workers from infection. But, if they aren’t paid, they may not be able to get food and house rent, let alone sanitiser, running water, soap and other essentials. They are at higher risk of COVID 19 because they often live in cramped conditions where social distancing is not possible and they will need to venture out to get supplies from ration stores- it is unlikely that they will be able to afford food and grocery delivery to their homes.
The growing uncertainty of income, tightening of budget, and pervasive fear come with huge stress and mental health impacts. And if, during lockdown, there is abuse or violence in the family, the effects are multiplied.
Supporting Domestic Workers
So, what can we do to recognise domestic workers’ humanity and support them during the pandemic?
1.Pay them their regular salaries: This is crucial. Even if they are unable to come to work, pay domestic workers at your house their regular salaries. You can do this via bank transfer or online payment modes. We may think that we don’t need to pay since they are not working, but we need to remember that they are human beings going through difficult times and need to survive. As Feminism in India explains in the graphic below, it is part of their human right to security and dignity during this crisis.
2.Thank domestic workers for their work in your house: Call them up to recognise and appreciate their work. If domestic workers are staying at your home and are still working, value their work and thank them.
3.Share reliable resources on COVID 19, translated into a language convenient for them: We know that panic can be fuelled by misinformation through WhatsApp forwards or text messages. Remember that, as a person with privilege, you have the resources to understand what messages may be fake and where to go for facts. For example, you could translate WHO’s advice for public (which includes popular myths) and send it to them. You can also share state coronavirus helplines. Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) has compiled information on COVID 19 in various languages- Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Nagamese, Odia and Telugu and English, which can be accessed here.
4.Support them in getting their essentials: If they are staying at your house, make sure you give them adequate food, access to health supplies and running water. If they are in their own homes, call to ask them if they are getting food, and if they have soap, running water and sanitiser. See if you can support them by donating money to them. You can also support them by linking them with NGOs and other initiatives that are providing essential services. Use your social networks (and the internet) to find genuine ones and help domestic workers in contacting them.
5.Do not blame them if their circumstances don’t let them comply with all norms: Remember that staying at home, regular washing of hands and physical distancing are privileges. If they live in cramped housing, they will not be able to observe physical distancing. If they need to get food from ration shops, they will have to leave their homes. If they do not have access to 24-hour running water, they cannot keep washing their hands. These are realities of their circumstances and scolding or stigmatising them is absolutely unhelpful. Instead, offer your support in making resources available.
7.Check in with them- ask them what they need: Don’t assume that, apart from the essentials, they don’t require any other support. An important part of acknowledging someone’s humanity is not assuming that we know everything they need. It’s important to ask domestic workers what other support they require.
I miss the didis who come to my house. Not just the work they do but the people they are: I miss the conversations we have and the jokes we share. Like everyone else, I hope this lockdown ends soon and they come back. But more than that, I hope they remain safe and well right now and in the future.
I am a feminist, bookworm, occasional writer and perpetual learner. I work at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO that uses Dance Movement Therapy for healing and empowering marginalised communities, and I’m currently training to be a Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner.