Coronavirus: No 'work from home' option for house helpers in India

A woman working from her home in Bangalore on March 20, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGALORE - Working from home to avoid transmission of Covid-19 in India has meant little to those who work in other people's homes.

Ms Rajamma, 55, cleans floors and washes the dishes in three apartments and a bakery in south Bangalore. She was surprised to see her employers - all white-collar employees - at home for the past week. "They didn't explain it and I didn't ask," she said.

Across the world, healthcare experts agree that the only way to control the rapidly spreading coronavirus and avoid overburdening national healthcare systems is to practise social distancing and limit human-to-human interactions.

Even as many Indian professionals practise self-isolation and social distancing these days, working from home for their assured, contractual salary, the domestic workers most of them employ continue life as before.

Ms Rajamma has never been to school but her son, a dental college student, told her about the virus. He advised her to wash her hands frequently and stay indoors as much as possible. But staying home is not an option for her.

"My work is not on a computer or a phone. If I have to earn a salary, I have to go out every day," Ms Rajamma said.

Last week, two of her employers asked her to take two weeks off. "They even paid my salary in advance, such good people," she said.

As the number of infections creep up in India, some some families are gradually warming to the idea of letting their house help take two weeks off for starters, without a pay cut.

"Giving them off with immediate effect definitely makes sense, and it's an individual call to not cut their pay. Since my entire family is home, we can share the chores," said Ms Poornima, 40, a handbag designer in Bangalore.

Almost 200 people tested positive for the coronavirus in India this week.

Ms Jayalakshmi Subramanian, 60, who returned from the US earlier this week to Kochi, in the state of Kerala, is under home quarantine for 14 days.

"Health officials told me clearly not to meet anyone, so I have asked my maid to take leave. I paid her salary in advance because I don't want her to quit the job. The truth is, I need her as much as she needs me, maybe more," she said.

In Noida, near Delhi, Mr Karan Verma, 52, who runs art and real estate magazines, faced an unexpected hurdle when he asked his two domestic workers to stop coming for two weeks.

"Both couldn't believe that we were asking them to take leave. They thought we didn't want them around any more or maybe we suspected them to be coronavirus carriers... We had to convince them that we wanted them to be safe with their family, instead of travelling around in tempos (public transport)," said Mr Varma.

"I guess they aren't used to leave with pay," he added.

India has an estimated 4.2 million domestic workers, though unofficial estimates put them at about 50 million. Over two-thirds of them are women.

Most middle- and upper-class Indians employ at least one household helper for cleaning.

Some also have cooks, gardeners, nannies, work assistants and security guards. With few regulations or unions safeguarding their interests, most are paid below minimum wage, and get their pay cut for every day they take off.

"Maids, cooks, drivers and security guards do not have any safety net - no access to healthcare, can be fired any time and have no sick leave even in a time like this," said Ms Geeta Menon, a Bangalore-based workers' rights activist.

Ms Rajamma attributed her two-week leave to just having "lucked out with generous employers."

Most have no such luck. A 40-year-old security guard in Bangalore, who did not want to be named, said: "Coronavirus is one disease that the jet-setting upper class is more likely to have and give to the working class, so I'm actually scared I'll get it from them."

In the supermarket where he works, shoppers have asked him to go home, but he is sure he will be fired if he suggests this to the service agency that employs him.

"Not all employers are kind-hearted. Our only hope is that the government makes it compulsory, or it pays the employers for their loss," said the guard.

The government advisories given to the Resident Welfare Associations in most cities are written from the point of view of the employer's safety.

"There is a lot of angst, anger and questions among the workers today. Employers are saying you come to work, and wash your hands. Or you don't come at all, but they are silent about payment," said Ms Menon.

In a national address on Thursday (March 19), Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to treat their workers with "empathy and humanity".

"In such a time of crisis, I request the business world and high-income segments of society to, as much as possible, look after the economic interests of all the people who provide them services… Always keep in mind that they too need to run their homes, protect their families from illness," said Mr Modi.

In Maharashtra, the state with the highest number of positive cases in India, the government declared offices shut in Mumbai, Pune and three other cities till March 31, and asked that employee salaries not to be cut.

But the coronavirus crisis presents a serious dilemma for the poor.

Many workers say they prefer to go to work even if offered leave because their homes are too tiny and overcrowded to practise social distancing. Many don't have water to drink, much less wash their hands regularly. About 160 million Indians do not have access to clean water.

Migrant workers in cities and factories live in cramped quarters with dozens of others, and cannot send money home if not working. .

"It's not just the virus the governments need to consider, but also the social and economic conditions the working class live in," said Ms Menon.

Kerala, a state whose government has taken proactive steps, might offer some ways to avoid a grim outcome. It has installed hand-wash basins at bus stops in the most remote villages, delivers meals to poor homes and offers wage subsidies to small businesses that have had to close.

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