Kolkata: The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in the lives of workers, both in the organised and inorganised sectors. As joblessness in the country reaches new highs, domestic workers across the country are among the worst sufferers, West Bengal being no exception.
For Malati Mondal (39) and Jharna Baidya (23), their day begins at 3:30 a.m. in their village near Taldi in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. By 4:30 a.m., they prepare food for their home and go to the railway station by 4:45 a.m. to catch the popular “Domestic Workers’ local” to Sealdah from Canning.
The sheer number of domestic workers who commute daily to Kolkata by these two trains from Canning and Laxmikantpur has led these trains being colloquially referred as ‘Jhi Special’ (the term jhi refers to domestic workers in Bengal, even though originally the word was used to denote a girl in the colloquial language till the 1950s). Every morning, thousands of women pour into Kolkata in these jam-packed trains, to earn their livelihood as domestic workers in and around the city.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has upturned the lives of these workers. During the first wave of the pandemic last year, several of them were forced to pawn their jewellery in order to survive, as the train services on which they rely for their commute remained closed owing to the lockdown restrictions.
Just as Malati was able to pay off the pawn shop and get her jewellery back, the second lockdown has again ravaged her life and thousands of others like her. According to an NGO that works with domestic workers in the South 24 Parganas area, hundreds of young domestic workers are allegedly on the verge of being trafficked once the lockdown is over so that they can pay off the debts taken during the period.
Also read: COVID-19 laid Bare the Struggles and Exploitation That Domestic Workers Face
Indrajit Ghosh, working president of the Paschimbanga Grihasahayika Union (West Bengal Domestic Workers’ Union), told NewsClick that it is high time that the government focuses its attention on the plight of the domestic workers. “Financial aid of at least Rs 6,000 as well as the proposed scheme to provide ration to their doorsteps must be implemented to ensure that the families of these people do not suffer from malnourishment,” he added.
He claimed that on May 19, a domestic worker died by suicide in Howrah due to family dispute caused by joblessness in the present situation. The union in a letter to the state government on May 20 demanded that all jobless domestic workers must be provided a monthly sum of Rs 6,000 along with ration for their family.
The letter also highlighted that the nature of work of domestic workers requires them to visit several houses, and in many cases coming in close contact with people who may be infected. In such a scenario, their vaccination should be prioritised. Further it has been argued that since these workers visit Kolkata for their work on a daily basis, measures can be taken to vaccinate them in the city itself.
The union has also requested the employers of these workers to not deduct the salaries if they are unable to come to work due to discontinuation of train and bus services in the state, or in many cases where housing complexes are not allowing the workers fearing spread of the virus. The letter added that the employers should provide masks and sanitisers to the domestic workers and also help in accessing medical help in case of emergencies.