Placement agencies say employers are sceptical about allowing their help to return to work post-lockdown. (Biplov Bhuyan/HT Photo)
Placement agencies say employers are sceptical about allowing their help to return to work post-lockdown. (Biplov Bhuyan/HT Photo)

Domestic workers face Covid test, interviews as they return to work

Even five months after the easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions began, thousands of domestic workers — maids, cooks, nannies — have not been able to return to work since employers continue to see them as potential carriers of the coronavirus.
By Manoj Sharma | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON OCT 12, 2020 06:43 AM IST

Sampati Bala was a bundle of nerves when she recently appeared for a Zoom interview before her prospective employers in Gurugram. She was looking to work as a live-in nanny; most questions she faced were about her medical history: did she or anyone in her family have fever recently? Did she live in a containment zone? Will she be okay with a coronavirus test? Will she be able to work without leaves for a few months?

Eventually, she did undergo a coronavirus test through the domestic help placement company, which organised the interview. Though she tested negative, the outcome of the interview was not positive.

“I do not know why I did not land the job. Maybe I failed to convince them about my abilities as a nanny, or maybe despite the negative test they were afraid of hiring me,” says Bala. “It has never been so difficult to find a job as a maid or a nanny.”

Vinod Yadav, founder and CEO, Hire Help in India, who organised the interview, says that very few interviews are being translated into jobs. “I had to start Zoom interviews as prospective employers do not want to meet household help in person. First, they want an interview over the phone, and if satisfied they ask for a Zoom interview. And more often than not, most maids do not make the cut. It is more about the employers’s fear of Covid-19 than anything else,” says Yadav.

“Out of the 100 zoom interviews I organised in the past few months, only 20 got hired. Ironically, while those wanting to hire a maid asked me to get the maid tested for coronavirus disease, which I do, but they do not want to undergo the test themselves as if only the maid is susceptible to the virus, and they are not, ” says Yadav, who started the company in 2012.

Even five months after the easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions began, thousands of domestic workers — maids, cooks, nannies — have not been able to return to work since employers continue to see them as potential carriers of the coronavirus. Most companies and agencies that provide domestic help services say that hiring of domestic workers----their number in the country vary from official estimates of 4.2 million to unofficial estimates of more than 50 million--- has dropped by as much as 70 per cent.

Mamuni Haldar , who lives in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony in northwest Delhi, used to work in Laxmi Nagar, almost 42 km away in east Delhi. She lost her job in March as the lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus began but is yet to be called back to work. “I had been working in three houses for the past 12 years. They had said they would hire me back after the lockdown, but this has not happened. One of my employers says she cannot afford to pay me as she lost her job,” says Halder, who used to travel by a DTC bus at 7.30 in the morning and reached her employers’s homes by 9.30am. The return journey, she says, often took around three hours because of the traffic rush-hour.

Not far away from her lives Nisha Halder, 55, who, like dozens of women in Savda Ghevra lost her job as maid which fetched her Rs 6,500 a month. She has given up all hopes of getting it back. “At this age, it is next to impossible to find any work,” she says. Savda Ghevra, which has a population of about 50,000, has over the years, come to acquire the sobriquet of a ‘planned slum’. The reason why a lot of women used to undertake such a long journey to Laxmi Nagar, is that many of the residents were resettled here from places such as Laxmi Nagar, Lodhi Colony, Pragati Maidan before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. And these women could not find work nearby.

Sunil Kumar, who runs Prema Manpower Service in Tughlaqabad village, says even those who are lucky enough to get a placement are getting unfair deals in terms of salary. “ A maid who earned Rs 16,000 before the pandemic is now getting only Rs 10,000 a month. The placements at my agency are down from 55 a month to about five a month. So far, I have got about 40 domestic helps tested for Covid-19, of which only one tested positive,” says Sunil Yadav, who has clients in many posh south Delhi colonies such as South Extension, Green Park and Vasant Kunj.

Having failed to get back their jobs they lost during the lockdown, many domestic workers are now trying to change their line of work. While Sudha Rani, 45, who lives in Tigri village in Noida, has turned to selling vegetables; many of her neighbours, who used to work in an apartment building in Noida, are trying to find work in garment units in Noida and Sahibabad. “My employer in a housing society in Noida did not take my call, so once I tried visiting her, but the guard at the gate called her on the phone and conveyed to me that she did not need me as of now. What really hurt was the fact that I worked for her for five years, but she preferred to convey her decision through the guard,” she says. “Feeling humiliated, I decided never to work as help.”

Rajiv Pandey, founder, Helpers Near Me — an online platform that enables the domestic workers to find work locally — says that the fear of the disease exists on both sides, “But the problem is concerns of the domestic workers have been overlooked.”

Many non-government organisations working with domestic workers have long been demanding bringing domestic workers under the ambit of labour laws and employment regulations, and treating them as unorganised workers with all attendant benefits. Smita Khanijow, who heads Informal Work and Women Workers programme at Action Aid India, a non- government organisation, says that almost 70% of the domestic workers remain unemployed today and need immediate help. “The government should register them, provide them immediate cash and ration support at least till the time the pandemic is over,” she says. What is making matters worse, she adds, are the continuing restrictions by RWAs on domestic workers. “A lot of them still impose entry time instructions and allow them to work in one house only.”

But RWAs denies the charge. “I think there is still a lot of fear of the disease in many households, and some individuals are not comfortable employing their helps at the moment. Our only advisory to RWAs right now is to ensure safety protocols while engaging domestic workers such as maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, regularly sanitising hands, ” says Atul Goyal, President, URJA (United Residents Joint Action), a collective of RWAs in Delhi.

Meanwhile, it is Friday afternoon and Vinod Yadav is busy setting up another Zoom interview for a domestic worker. “Now, I have also started providing them a crash course in expressing themselves better during Zoom interview to increase their chance of success. But people need to understand that domestic workers are only as much carriers of the Covid-19 as anyone else. Not more, not less.”

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