The Pandemic Life: Indian Housemaid

Shourya Agarwal

Splash and splurge? Rinse and Repeat? Nah, if there’s one phrase that can truly capture the daily struggle of an Indian housemaid, it would be ‘Reaching Out’. They reach out for the lonely dust specks in wooden crevices. They reach out to snuggle with the aged cobweb behind the rusty ceiling fan. They reach out to make ends meet—to take that step out of the patriarchy-clogged-doorway to earn their daily bread. For centuries, housemaids in India have been excavating treasures in their dustpans—morsels of dignity to trudge an inch away from the clutches of cyclical poverty. Unfortunately, for millions of them, the pandemic has just stamped out their hopes. 

Domestic work in India is one of the most unregulated sectors in the country. While official reports claim around three million women-helpers, the International Labour Organization thinks otherwise. ILO estimates that around 50 million women work as household help in India with an average pay of $30 a month. The work profile on an average employee entails twelve hours of laboring sandwiched between caring for their own families. Because the sector is largely driven by the cash economy, it becomes that much easier for the employer to fire the worker. When PM Modi declared a 2 month-long, nation-wide lockdown to prevent contamination, most of the housemaids received their Trumpesque ‘pink slips’ over the phone. 

Across the country, employees were laid off. In order to safeguard the citizens, the government made it mandatory for employers to pay their employees in the shut-down period. Unfortunately, housemaids, like numerous other workers in the informal sector, fell through the cracks. Most housemaids were employed in middle-class households in urban areas. Usually, such households would require the services as both the spouses would be working. However, the massive shift towards the ‘work from home’ culture devoured their utility. Even in the cases where the employers were willing to provide financial assistance, the continuous extensions in the lockdown bled their purses dry. As Kavita, a middle-income employer from Mumbai puts it, “For people facing a financial crisis and depleting their savings, morality is a luxury they cannot afford”. This sentiment echoes in a recent Times of India survey which examined the domestic work sector. Due to the fears of the virus and the induced economic crash about 85% of domestic workers lost their jobs. Even this data exposes the huge gender divide with 52% of women receiving ‘no pay’ as opposed to 32% of men. 

The pandemic induced lockdown created another cataclysmic damage to the housemaids. Most Indian housemaids have their husbands working as daily-wage labourers. In fact, most of them hail from sem-rural areas and migrate to the cities for work. The lockdown dashed the prospects for employment, as a result, most migrant workers embarked homewards. With civic amenities like public transport suspended most of them undertook the journey barefoot. According to Indian Express, India saw a mass exodus of 30 million people this summer. The reluctant wives were forced to trail behind them to a place which holds no prospects for them to find employment. In the rural areas, statistically only one in eight of the returning women workers would find work. A place, where the roots of patriarchy run so deep that they would be confined inside their households, with no sense of self-dependence which characterized their previous lives. 

As the pandemic bulldozes through, little can be said about what fate has in store for these women. The lockdown unveiled some deep-seated prejudices as employers would prefer to retain maids which came from the ‘middle-castes’ and hence were ‘clean’ enough to not contract the virus. The lockdown unraveled this disastrous trend to leave out these women from the grand scheme of ‘Self-reliant India’, bearing testament to the much larger contamination that plagues our milieu.