As surge of COVID-19 infections topped 15 million in India, domestic workers are being asked by employers to provide proof of a negative test and get vaccinated, a crippling new cost of the pandemic.
The country’s 50 million mostly female domestic workers have already lost so much potential income since last year when the government imposed nationwide lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus.
The latest surge in cases means parts of the country, including New Delhi and India’s financial capital Mumbai, have imposed lockdowns as health facilities were unable to cope with the influx of patients.
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 (US$159) a month.
She now earns just 3,000 rupees a month as only one home retained her – yet the costs of going to work 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 (US$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.
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% 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. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)