Will Covid-19 Teach Us How to Treat Our Domestic Help Like Human Beings?

Social Commentary

Will Covid-19 Teach Us How to Treat Our Domestic Help Like Human Beings?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In the first few days of the lockdown, a suspiciously large number of urban Indians — judging by the sudden surge in social media updates about having to wash our own plates and wiping down our toilets — found out what it was like to have to clean up after themselves for possibly the first time in their lives.

The coronavirus lockdown meant that we would no longer have our proficient didis, maushis, and bais by our side, to help us magically remove all strands of hair that have collected on the floor, or keep stock of all the vegetables in the fridge.

More understanding families dealt with this void in their lives by posting photographs of extravagant self-cooked meals. Others — as a WhatsApp group on my phone seems to indicate — held polls on whether domestic help should be paid at all, considering “they were forcing families to pick up a broom” in these trying times.

Either way, this unavoidable rule was promptly enforced by RWAs, with the classic touch of elitism that’s usually reserved for pretentious wine tastings. Since then, RWAs have been locked in tussles with their residents over when to allow help to return.

An important distinction to make, and one that shouldn’t have to be reiterated in 2020 — domestic help are employees, not slaves.

A few have even issued crazy orders, such as ensuring that all maids have a Covid-19-free certification before they can work in houses again — possibly leaving a number of confused residents frantically Googling whether this was even a thing.

The people over at Kent RO contributed to this unarguably classist narrative with their worst idea since broadcasting the moment Hema Malini first discovered clean water. They put out a tone-deaf appeal that went something along the lines of, “protect yourself from the bearers of pestilence that are your domestic help”.

All these *compelling arguments* aside, there have been saner appeals to make sure the help who kept our homes in order for years continued to be paid, including by the Prime Minister himself. So maybe rather than fretting about where to procure Covid-19 test certificates, this pandemic could serve as a wake-up call for the country’s “middle-class”: One that makes us change the way we look at the “essential staff” in our homes.

Starting with — treating them like actual employees. This means going beyond making sure their salaries are paid (which anyone who can afford during the quarantine has no excuse to not be doing), but also considering putting some money aside to put them on a health insurance plan.

It also means not complaining about giving them a day off a week, as well as a paid holiday period every year, while simultaneously ignoring the fears that family gatherings put in us about some anonymous “boyfriend” who’ll steal our didis from us. This is an important distinction to make, and one that shouldn’t have to be reiterated in 2020 — they’re employees, not slaves. Think about how it would make you feel if your employer told you they’d revoke your hiring letter if they found out you were having an “affair”.

Kent RO put out a tone-deaf appeal that went something along the lines of, “protect yourself from the bearers of pestilence that are your domestic help”.

Since the lockdown began, though, it’s also been extremely tough for money to reach the hands of domestic help, especially in cities like Mumbai, considering a large number of them live in the densely populated areas that have been marked out as containment zones. Places like Dharavi, which has seen over 1,500 positive Covid-19 cases.

A number of these families are now left in that unenviable position of not being able to collect their monthly salaries, even from the houses that still agree to regularly pay. So when things do eventually get back to normal, maybe helping them open a bank account might make their lives a whole lot easier. It also won’t take too much time — all you need to do is actually answer the next spam call from ICICI, and fill out a couple of forms.

For anyone who can afford it, it may not be such a bad idea to even set some money aside to create an emergency fund for the people who you technically employ. It may mean a couple of less coffees a month, but for most house help, who are forced into cleaning homes more out of compulsion than passion, it could go a long way.

All through the last couple of months of lockdown the plight of migrant labourers in the country has been on full display, shocking even the most indifferent of us into looking for ways to contribute. It’s also been met with several calls to grant basic rights to the struggling daily-wagers. In this case, as they say, let change begin at home.

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