New Delhi: They have long battled job insecurities and temperamental employers, but 2020 was particularly tough for domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and daily wage workers who confronted not just a pandemic but also social exclusion -- and the sombre realisation their jobs were expendable.
While the virus affected all classes, the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly devastating for those in the informal sector who found themselves on the streets, without their livelihoods and sometimes without their homes too.
"The economic crisis of the proportion of contraction of more than 20% in the second quarter and potential livelihood losses leading to approximately 400 million people sliding back into poverty according to ILO warrants a radically new model if we are sincere about ensuring a minimum floor of dignity for every citizen of the country," said Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar.
Mamta, a 69-year-old domestic worker, is living that inexorable slide into poverty in a society that has deemed her and others like her “high risk”.
She had been working as a house help in Noida since her husband died 15 years ago but was turfed out in April without any notice.
"My employers in April told me they cannot keep a help in view of the infection and fear of contracting it from people like us. Since then, the financial crunch has been so acute that I had to borrow money from a loan shark but am now unable to repay him,” she told PTI.
With no wages and no money to pay back the money lender, Mamta is caught in a vicious debt circle. She said she thought things would improve when the unlock period started but that did not happen because people are still wary of hiring help and letting them into their homes.
“I don't even have money to buy medicines and have begun to lose weight. I have not been keeping well," said the woman who came to the big city from Siliguri 25 years ago.
Mamta is not alone.
Thousands of part-time and full-time domestic helps lost their jobs and went without any money for months when they were fired because people feared contracting COVID-19 from them.
Hina said she has been reduced to going door to door asking people if they need help with anything.
"When I started working as a domestic help, my mother told me this line of work would mean a good consistent income but this year proved her wrong. I am desperately looking for work but people are still scared of hiring domestic help,” said the 24-year-old who lives in East Delhi’s Mayur Vihar locality.
“My previous employers fired me after telling me they can’t be exposed to me since I live in a slum and share a bathroom with others. What should people like us do?" she asked despairingly.
It has been a traumatic year for rickshaw pullers and cab drivers too.
Raja Ram, 34, the sole earner for his family of six, said nobody wants to get on to his rickshaw and he feels like an untouchable.
"There was absolutely no income in March, April and May. Even now, people do not want to use rickshaws because they fear catching the infection from us. I even started keeping a sanitiser with me and sanitise the seat in front of the customer but this is not helping either. We feel like untouchables," he said.
Ram has now started doing any odd job he finds in his area in Noida.
"I have started delivering groceries for people at home. I also have some work as a daily wage worker but it is not much," he said.
Cab drivers, in a higher income bracket than rickshaw pullers like Ram, are caught in the same trap with business plummeting despite scrupulous adherence to all COVID appropriate behaviour.
"Just last year, I would earn up to Rs 1 lakh per month but now my income for this year has not been more than Rs 30,000 per month," said Sanjay Singh, a driver working for a cab hailing service in Delhi who follows all the dos and don'ts required to ensure customer confidence in times of a pandemic.
"We were seeing the trend of people preferring a cab hailing service rather than buying their own vehicles. But that changed this year with this pandemic," Singh said.
Singh is hoping for a better 2021 but realises the future is bleak, saying COVID-19 has made people more apprehensive about health safety in cabs.
According to Oxfam India’s Behar, the pandemic-led crisis has accentuated the "inherent obscene inequality of our economic model" and there is need to recognise this and reboot a fundamentally different economic model to ensure a just and green future.
Poonam Muttreja, public health expert and executive director of Population Foundation of India (PFI), said COVID-19 is far bigger than just a health crisis. The pandemic and subsequent national lockdown has resulted in a health, social and economic emergency that is nothing short of a catastrophe.
"The economic crisis has had a significant impact on informal workers. Almost 90% of workers in India work in the informal economy -- that part of the economy which thrives on daily work, and daily cash, with little provisions of employment protection. Like demonetisation, the current lockdown has exposed millions of workers and their families to starvation and very bleak future prospects," Muttreja said.
She said the impact on vulnerable populations, particularly women, is profound.
"Domestic workers, a vast majority of whom are women, have been placed on unpaid leave since the pandemic began, due to hygiene issues raised by their employers and are concerned about making ends meet," she said.
Going forward, the government must ensure income support to families of those working in the informal sector so that they are able to sustain themselves.
"Support could also include cash transfers, food or in-kind distributions, as well as distance support (e.g. radio campaigns) to raise awareness and listen to their needs. Specific measures should be designed for women workers. Increased investment in education and vocational training for women is imperative as it can lead to higher female labour force participation in the formal sector in the long run," Muttreja added.