RAKA ROY | 30 JULY, 2020
‘This Pandemic is a Mirror to Our Fragility’: Interview with Four Women Workers
Our notions of both ‘work’ and ‘healthcare’ need to be changed
KOLKATA: A, B, C, D are four women workers. A and B are domestic workers employed part-time by households in South Kolkata. C and D are teachers working from home and employ domestic workers themselves.
None of the four are immigrants to West Bengal – A’s natal home is in the south, 10 kilometres from Namkhana, the nearest railhead, while B, C and D were born in Kolkata and have lived their lives here.
A is an Adivasi woman in her late thirties. She is single and lives alone in the city, renting a room and sharing a common toilet with six other families on the same floor, in the working-class neighbourhood of Kalikapur in South Kolkata, a stone’s throw from the multi-storeyed apartments down the road.
At present she does part-time domestic work for four households. On the 5th of every month she must pay her room rent and electricity bill of Rs.3000 without fail to her landlady, who lives nearby. There has been no relaxation for the pandemic.
At home A helps support the expenses of her parents, who are in their eighties, and often helps out her brother with small sums – he works in the fields as a hired labourer and also drives a trekker part-time. He has a wife and two children to take care of.
In January, she helped finance a niece’s wedding.
Two of the households where she works refused to pay her salary for the month of March citing a lack of resources due to the pandemic, and without ceremony dismissed her from her job.
A says she called each number twice, once after hearing their decisions, to implore them to understand her situation. Disgusted with their non-response, she decided not to ask them again and let the matter rest.
Another of her employers lent her some money to cover rent and living expenses, and she has managed to find wage-work at a couple of other places for now, so this month, she says, she need not worry.
“Although vegetable prices in the market are like fire itself,” she adds.
Asked how she came to know about the pandemic, A says she slowly put things together from conversations with fellow workers, and with the households that employ her. She is still confused about it. She didn’t attend school beyond class five.
Her ration and Aadhar cards are with her parents, and she doesn’t have a bank account in her name in Kolkata. So when push comes to shove, it’s very difficult for her to get a loan from a bank or even from her local moneylender.
With a rueful half-laugh she says the only daami (expensive) thing she has is the silver chain with a maduli (amulet) around her neck. Apart from the hands which earn her wages, that is.
A wears a mask and headcap all day, not taking them off till she’s back home: she says firstly it protects her, and it’s also what her employers want. She details how when she reaches homes she changes into fresh clothes right away and thoroughly washes her clothes with detergent to keep herself safe.
But this also means increased expenses every month, and she complains again of the high price of things in the market. The one bit of help she got from her family, her monthly ration of rice brought to her by her brother, has stopped too. With trains not running in West Bengal, it’s impossible for her or her brother to travel, for the cost has increased from Rs.100 via train to Rs.1000–1200 by a series of autos, trekkers and buses.
As for healthcare, she says she has no idea, shrugging off the matter with an anecdote: “A local woman, complaining of stomach pain, had recently gone to a doctor’s chamber in her locality, but a crowd soon gathered as she screamed and raged at the doctor who refused to see her from up close. Writhing in pain, she finally managed to go to another doctor in a ricksha with the help of people around.” The wry lesson of this incident has remained with A: let alone Covid, even a simple ailment spells trouble as doctors are almost always out of reach for them.
A sums up: there is the rent, the increased fragility of employment, no chance of going home, and the lurking threat of contracting the illness with every step she takes while out for work.
Planning for a medical emergency is out of the question. “If the hospital hands me a bill of a lakh how will I get the money? Probably even all the money my parents have put together will fall short.”
What might make things better, what if there were a law ensuring her a basic minimum income, or a minimum wage and state-provided medical coverage? “Yes. Sarkar diley to amader garib manushder bhalo hoy.” (If the government gives it, it will benefit poor people like us.)
B is also a domestic worker in Kolkata, married with a 12 year-old son, and rents a room in Kalikapur with her husband (in his forties) sharing a floor with four other families.
She passed her secondary board exams from the well-known Beltala Girls’ High School and wanted to continue to the higher secondary level, but after her father died she had to help out by doing odd jobs, running a tea-and-tiffin stall, and fund her younger sister’s education.
Then she fell in love and decided to marry and settle down, knowing her dreams of further education would have little chance of coming true in married working life. Her husband is not literate, having grown up in an employer’s house as an orphan. He shifts between driving private cars, working as a hired construction labourer, and as a pharmacy assistant.
Together with her husband, B is fierce in her determination and channels the entirety of their combined income, planning and decisions towards one and one goal only – their son’s education. She says she knew it was ambitious of her to register him in an English medium convent school in the city. But she is prepared to go the extra mile for it: without a good education, she says, “There’s no way my son can escape from this.”
She hasn’t yet been dismissed from any of her jobs due to the pandemic. But she resigned from one: her employer’s husband had died, and on the day of the ceremony, as B went with some flowers and a box of sweets to pay her respects, she was asked to clean and sweep the kitchen in front of all the other guests.
She mentions her anger, her outrage that even amid such grief, the employer was hell-bent on remaining an employer. “Amra chhoto jaat, onar barite kaaj kori bolei uni eta bollen, tai to?” (Our caste is small, and we work in her house. That’s why she said so, isn’t it?)
B came to know about the pandemic through the papers and Facebook, apart from conversations with neighbours and employers. She says she’s relieved they have a smartphone, which her son uses for online lessons and exams.
She keeps tabs on any symptoms and uses a mask, headcover and soap. But it’s no use thinking about a medical emergency, she says. Her biggest worry right now is the increasing expenditure in her house and how to make ends meet for her son’s schooling.
There being no respite in school fees this year, she has borrowed Rs.11,000 from her employer. Even for virtual lessons, she says, they are being made to buy school uniforms and a school bag apart from their books.
Should an emergency occur, the local government hospital is their only recourse. B agrees that guaranteed affordable medical treatment and a basic minimum income would indeed help workers like her.
C is a school-teacher in her mid-twenties. She came to know about the pandemic long before it arrived in India, from social media, online news platforms, newspapers, etc. She takes care of her parents who she lives with. Her salary being paid in instalments during the pandemic, but apart from this she isn’t too worried about her income this academic session.
Her parents’ health is her foremost concern: what to do if they require any sort of medical care, the element of risk involved during the pandemic. She readily agrees she is privileged, with food, shelter and access to healthcare.
To fix the inadequate healthcare system, she says, “things need to be the opposite of what they are.” Governments should allot a bigger share of GDP for health and medical care, and find ways to strengthen the infrastructure of government hospitals, expand zilla hospitals, and thus restore the options people had other than expensive commercial hospitals.
C mentions the Ahmedabad High Court’s recent orders that private hospitals conduct Covid testing at the same price as government hospitals. “At the end of the day, it is a choice between life and death, health and illness,” she says. “People should not have to choose the latter because the former cannot be availed.”
Her second concern is of mental health during the pandemic. She is worried about her peers, the students she teaches, and older people. This pandemic “is actually a mirror to our fragility, our incapacities rather than advances, the hurdles ahead of us, expecting the unexpected and adapting to it”.
Afterwards, C hopes, there will be “a new way to be human, a new way of communicating and experiencing the human in us”.
“There will be some people who might be more accumulating and selfish now,” but she hopes “we will learn to root through our privileges and find ways of acknowledging the precarities of others, and find ways of breaching the gap.”
The foremost thing that would make it easier to survive the pandemic, she reiterated, is better healthcare infrastructure.
D, the last worker, is a schoolteacher on the verge of retiring. Her source of information about the pandemic are social media feeds, groups, news and newspapers. She knows she can work from home, has stable employment at a time like this, and doesn’t have to think about food and shelter every day.
What are the fears and anxieties the pandemic has brought D? Her health and her family’s, she says, and the fact that she is retiring soon. Unlike a government job, she will not have a pension, and the threat of spiralling health expenses (and others) has become real.
She says it gives her sleepless nights to think of the eventualities of a medical emergency. She has had to look deep within herself to adapt to this situation. More than teaching herself to use the latest technology, what worries her is wrapping her head around the fact that very few things will remain the same as before.
“Even if the pandemic leaves, the effects will hardly go. It will leave its mark on us.” Already it has revealed the faultlines of our attitudes and socioeconomic fabric; a precarity not warded off by relative wealth, not individual but social.
“Our notions of both ‘work’ and ‘healthcare’ need to be changed,” she says.
How? “The central and the state government should work to extend Employee State Insurance, allow for a minimum wage in every state and strengthen labour laws instead of diluting them. Rather than PPP or privatisation outright, there should be access to government hospitals or efforts made to put a cap on the private ones.”
Contrasting these interviews, what springs out at the outset is the failure of public institutions to distribute resources among workers A and B, who are from historically marginalised caste and informalised wage-work backgrounds. As employers, we have robbed these workers of safety and dignity.
Notably, these are not “migrant” workers. They are women workers from historically oppressed castes, who continue to be employed and represented by people from the historically oppressor castes. C and D are respectively the employers of A and B.
Since the pandemic, domestic workers, teachers, supermarket staff and others have often been called “essential workers”. With governments responding incompetently to the pandemic, hospitals and nursing homes were soon flooded by anxious, helpless patients, and the burden fell on the doctors, nurses, interns, staff who were rightly called “essential workers”.
If these are essential workers—sweepers, cleaners, garbage collectors, ward staff, ambulance drivers, morgue and crematorium workers, pharmacists, care workers, to name a few—and one considers how we treat them, one is confronted by different ideas of work, job, service, use in society, oppressor and oppressed and the boundaries in between.
Highly feminised, the domestic workers and teachers interviewed here belong to two highly gendered professions. The contrast in between them reveals much about work, pandemic and society.
Cover Photograph Reuters
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