About one year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In India, domestic workers are among the most severely hit groups. In the initial stages of the lockdown, most domestic workers were laid off. Many did not get paid for months. Some of them were initially assured that they would be rehired and paid after the lockdown was over. But even as the lockdown eased, the condition of domestic workers has barely improved.
For many, like Shabana*, who has been working as a cleaner in Guwahati for almost a decade now, things have been rough. Shabana used to work in three houses before the lockdown but has been rehired in only one.
“I was told that I would be rehired after the lockdown, but then only one family did that. The other two families did not pay me during the lockdown and now have hired others,” she says.
As a result, her income has dipped substantially, but costs have not. While they cannot compromise on expenses such as rent, there has been a direct impact on their diets and nutritional needs.
“We have not had anything other than rice and chillies for months. We also skip meals. Everything is so expensive. We have a young daughter whose nutritional needs are getting severely impacted. As a growing person, she should eat well, but unfortunately, it is not happening. I hear on the TV that one needs good immunity to protect themselves against COVID-19. But how will we have immunity if we cannot eat anything good?” says Shabana.
Initially, her family received rice for free from the government, but now they have to buy it at a discounted rate in the market. Data shows that India is facing food inflation of 7.9 percent. In fact, food inflation was an issue much before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation has only worsened now.
Families like Shabana’s are forced to compromise on their nutritional intake. While fruits and vegetables have always been luxury items for them, now even daal (lentils) and potatoes fall within that category.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.
Rituparna Patgiri teaches sociology in Indraprastha College for Women (IPCW), University of Delhi. Ritwika Patgiri is a PhD student in the Faculty of Economics, South Asian University (SAU), New Delhi. The authors have been conducting research on domestic workers in Assam since August, as part of a research grant from Zubaan Books.