India’s 50 million domestic workers already had it tough. Now the mostly female force of cooks, cleaners and carers must test negative for coronavirus and get vaccinated to keep earning, a crippling new cost of the pandemic.
COVID-19 infections have already topped 15 million nationwide, a tally only surpassed by the United States.
Parts of the country, including New Delhi and India’s financial capital Mumbai, have imposed lockdowns with health facilities unable to cope with the latest wave of the virus.
The crisis sweeping the cities means that women who want domestic work must first prove they pose no risk to the family.
Some housing complexes have even put up camps to test staff for free before they enter the building, but many employers are insisting the maids pay for the tests from their own wages.
“I lost so much work during the pandemic that my monthly earnings have dropped,” domestic help Annapurna Das told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Delhi.
Pre-pandemic, Das cooked, cleaned floors and washed clothes in four households, earning about 12,000 rupees ($159) a month.
That figure is now down now to 3,000 rupees as only one home retained her — yet her costs have risen.
“Employers who did not give me a single penny last year during the lockdown are now asking me to get a test done if I wished to return,” she said.
“But how can I afford it after a year of no work?”
The test costs more than 600 rupees ($8), and can be hard to find with diagnostics firms near breaking point in big cities.
Many maids also fear the implications of a positive result given the creaking state of local healthcare facilities.
COVID patients in India are waiting long hours for a bed, with frantic relatives wheeling their sick from hospital to makeshift pandemic facilities in search of help.
Employers say it makes sense to screen staff and prevent them bringing the new coronavirus into their homes.
In a Mumbai suburb, a housing complex with more than 100 flats has mandated that all guests — be it visiting relatives, maids or repairmen — be tested.
“We held a camp to facilitate this and maids were among those tested for free. Spending 600 to 800 rupees was a financial burden for them,” said Siju Narayan, a member of the managing committee of the housing complex.
Army of workers
Most domestic workers are employed for a few hours a day by several households. They have no social security and only a few are registered under local welfare boards, campaigners said.
They were among the worst hit in the strict lockdown that India imposed last year to contain the pandemic as many lost work and wages for months.
The second COVID-19 wave has compounded fears among employers who are seeking younger maids or the vaccinated.
“The crisis for maids is not only severe, it is never ending,” said Latha Mohan who runs the Annai Placement Agency in Chennai, adding that more than 80 percent of the domestic helps registered with her agency have not been able to resume work.
“Employers are asking maids to get the COVID vaccine and show them the government certificate or message indicating that they are vaccinated. Many are scared, unsure to take the jab as vaccine hesitancy is high among them,” she said.
Unlike last year when the coronavirus invaded Indian slums, home to many domestic workers, it is high-rise residential buildings that account for more cases this year, officials said.
But the burden of proof — a negative certificate, full vaccination — rests on the maids, not their employers.
Rekha Pawar, 28, a mother of three, said she never considered taking a test until her job demanded it.
“I need work, so I had to get tested last week. My employers paid for the test but I feared testing positive… how would I quarantine? Who would take care of my children?” said Pawar, who works in four households and earns about 8,000 rupees a month.
Unions said many employers did help their domestic staff.
“They are registering them for vaccinations and also paying for their tests. But both employers and workers need to take the test for their own safety,” said Ashish Shigwan, a coordinator with National Domestic Workers Movement.
“After all, as an employer you are responsible for the safety of workers entering your house. It is about workplace safety,” Shigwan said.
Reporting by Roli Srivastava for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.