We bring you here personal testimonies of three women who are domestic workers from Kolkata, India. Their stories reveal the vicious realities of the so-called informal economy and how the pandemic has exacerbated its worst features. The women recount the intimate and near-omniscient power employers exert over them as “housemaids,” but most importantly, they point towards the solution.
We are grateful to Kasturi Basu of the People’s Film Collective in Kolkata for conducting the original interviews in Bangla, to Rounak Roy for transcribing them, and to Tinnie Mukherjee for translating them into English.
My Name is Rita Singh; I live in Narendrapur. I take the train from Narendrapur to Baghajatin station every day, leaving home at 4:45 am in the morning and returning by 4:30 or 4:45 pm.
I work in seven homes as a cook and earn a total of Rs 13,000 ($170 approximately) every month.
Once the lockdown began, the local train also stopped running. I am unable to go to work now. I will have to wait for the trains to start running again.
I am luckier than others. My employers are still paying me a salary during lockdown. It has been difficult for others, especially those who travel far for work. They are not being paid and are spending their savings; some have already spent what they had and are taking loans with interest to survive. Some, who live as tenants, are not able to eat. Their landladies/landlords are giving them rice, vegetables. Meanwhile, many are being told over the phone that they have been fired.
With the passing of each day, people are becoming silent. No one realized this lockdown would last so long; we thought perhaps it would be a matter of ten to fifteen days. That’s what people had in mind when they took loans. Now they cannot afford to take out any more loans.
We are collecting kindling and branches from trees, drying them, and using them as fuel. Very few are using cooking gas. The cooking is done during the day. We pour water over rice cooked in the afternoon and save it for later meals. We have it at night with some fries—maybe potatoes. This is how it has been. People go into the fields and pick up greens that grow in the open. Every evening we go out to forage. This way at least we get to have one vegetable with our meal. I buy one vegetable from the market. The rest I pick from whatever grows in the neighborhood.
The Public Distribution System [by which the government distributes food grains to the poor] has proved to be woefully inadequate for us in these times. Those who have digital cards are eligible for free rations. Others have to buy rice for Rs 13 a kilo. Only a few of us have these cards.
My husband is a house painter and has had no work since the lockdown began. He took care of half of our household expenses but now the whole burden is on me.
[As domestic workers], our bodies are always on the run; we work throughout the day. That heavy, physical work has suddenly stopped. It is strange. It makes us unable to digest food, the body feels heavy, bloated.
My name is Lokkhi Mondol; I am 37 years old. I earn Rs 6000 ($78) a month. I have an unmarried daughter at home, she is unwell. My husband works as a caretaker. Our household runs on both our earnings.
Several women have lost their jobs, or are not being paid salaries, as they are not allowed to come to work. Almost all the women I know share the same plight.
It’s not our fault. When they refuse to pay us, we can do nothing about it; we can’t go to their homes and take our salaries by force, right?
These people with steady jobs, they have money in the bank. We survive by working in their homes, if they refuse to pay us, how will our homes run?
They are telling us right to our faces “We won’t pay.” My sister has been sacked from one household. They have said we will neither keep you, nor pay you.
Every family has two to three kids, four to five members. If we don’t get paid, how will we manage?
Anonymous resident of Rongkol basti [slum], domestic worker
We are workers. If the babus/bosses can sit at home and get paid, it is right that we should get paid, too. The government and corporations are paying their salaries. We are employees in their homes, why should we not get paid?
They say: “Why should we pay when you are sitting at home?” But what about them, they aren’t going to work, either. How come they are getting paid? They pay us so little and they have so much.
I have been without work the whole month. Where do we go with our little children?
What will happen to us?
We are asking the babus [employers/bosses] for help, for a loan, promising to repay it over time. But they don’t even agree to that. I have been calling them; when they see it’s me they won’t pick up the phone. In my family of five, I am the sole earning member—if I am not paid, how will we live?
Here’s what I think: If they are not paying us, the government and their companies should not pay them, either.
By the way, the government is doing nothing for the poor. It says we are giving you food (through the Public Distribution System). But we are allotted only five kilos of rice twice a month; it is not enough for us.
We don’t just want our jobs back, we want our jobs to be secure.
All of us women here [domestic workers, who live in this slum] want a union. If we speak as individuals, they will not listen.
Once we have a union, we can go to our employers as part of the union and demand, not request, our salaries.