Monday, 30th October 2017

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To call or not to call for help

That is the debate in every house as the government’s circular on the third phase of lockdown allows the return of domestic staff

  • Published 8.05.20, 1:41 PM
  • Updated 8.05.20, 1:41 PM
  • 5 mins read
  •  
At some homes, domestic workers were never discontinued Illustration: Onkarnath Bhattacharya

To call or not to call the domestic help: that is the question. The lockdown is well into the second month and by now residents are exhausted at having to cook and clean all by themselves.

From May 4, the government has allowed domestic help in even the red zones but The Telegraph finds that many residents are still in two minds.

Strong resolve

Nandita Ghosh of FE Block is an insulin-dependant diabetic. The pensioner has had two spine surgeries and a knee replacement, because of which she cannot stand for long. “My fingers are paining from scrubbing the kadai and chatu clean,” she gasps, but adds in the same breath: “I will still not let any domestic help into the house. Not till Covid-19 is under control.”

It’s the same in DB Block, where Sonali Basak is unable to maintain her huge bungalow by herself. “I am cleaning only part of the house, where I’m staying most of the time,” says the lady, who stays alone. “But I can’t take a chance by letting in the domestic help. I am telling neighbours to refrain too but many of them are not listening. We have to be extra cautious as we have had Covid-positive cases in our very block.”

AA Block’s Urmy Palchaudhuri sent her two helping hands on leave even before the lockdown and asked them to cite her example at other houses where they work to seek leave from there as well. Her family members are now washing their own dishes and trudging along.

Ashima Dutta Roy is slogging from 6.30am every day and sitting to have lunch at 4pm. “There’s just too much work,” says the FD Block lady whose family has three pets and also feeds the street dogs outside. “But better safe than sorry. Domestic helps are, as it is, low on hygiene. Even on the eve of the lockdown when I asked my help to wash her hands before and after chopping vegetables, she grumbled that it’s a bother! And I could never get her to wear a mask.”

Dutta Roy’s help lives in Duttabad, where a Covid-19 case has already been detected.

The lockdown is well into the second month and by now residents are exhausted at having to cook and clean all by themselves
The lockdown is well into the second month and by now residents are exhausted at having to cook and clean all by themselves Illustration: Onkarnath Bhattacharya

Those who blinked

At some homes, domestic workers were never discontinued. These are usually homes of the elderly who depend on help living in garages nearby.

One such resident hails from BC Block. The elderly man who lives alone had been living on bread and instant noodles for the first few days of the lockdown. But a friend told him of a cook who lives across the street and the man now calls her over to cook twice a week.

“My neighbours have been objecting to the lady’s entry but when I asked them for an alternative they had none. Of course I’m scared of Covid but if I live on Maggi is my immunity not reducing even more? When people go to markets are they not undertaking a minimum risk for the sake of sustenance? I am doing the same,” he reasons.

The Saha family of GD Block has compromised after a month. “We in GD Block are surrounded by Covid cases in GC, HA, EE blocks… Plus the real risk of spread begins now after the May 4 exemptions.

But I cannot slog anymore; my shoulders are paining,” says Sangeeta Saha. “I’ve now left it to fate and asked my cleaning lady to start coming every three or four days.”

DA Block resident Saswati Nandi has a care-giver come every morning to look after her ailing husband. “She walks from Muchibazar. I could not have managed any chores if this lady wasn’t there to look after my husband. As for my cleaning lady, she comes once in a while when she goes to the market. Otherwise her neighbours don’t let her leave their locality.”

Champa Majhi (name changed) is a domestic help who lives in Kestopur and has started coming to a BE Block house from about two weeks back. “An elderly lady lives alone in that house and she can barely walk, let alone cook for herself. The other houses I work at have asked me not to come but this lady is helpless,” says Champa.

The help had tried coming a few times early in the lockdown but claims the cops chased her away from the footbridge. “So now I come at dawn before the police take charge,” she says.

End of tether

At the beginning of the lockdown Debi Kesh bravely asked her helps to stay away but after all these weeks her strength has drained. “I can pull it off for, at most, another month. Beyond that even if I am threatened of catching Covid, I won’t be able to do chores,” says the senior citizen of FE Block.

“Today my help tried to come to work but her neighbours didn’t let her. I spoke to her neighbours over phone, citing the government relaxation, but they refused,” Kesh says.

Mahasweta Sil of AB Block said her cleaning lady called on Monday to ask if she should resume work. “But since my neighbours haven’t started availing of help yet, I asked her to lie low for a few more days,” she said.

Of course, the helps are undergoing great financial problems. “In one neighbour’s house, their help forced her way in and started sweeping the floor. She said her family had nothing to eat and that the household ought to let her work and earn a living again,” says Sil sadly.

At CK Block, a resident says she cannot go out to the balcony without someone calling out from the street and asking if they needed someone for chores. Despite the hardship, some residents are scared of employing these freelance workers.

“Who knows where they are coming from and how many homes they have worked in before? They may spread infection. We have elderly residents at home and cannot take that chance,” says Raka Chaudhuri of AD Block.

One of Chaudhuri’s helps comes by train from Khardah and with train services suspended, she need not mull over whether or not to allow the help to come. Her other help lives in Kestopur but is unable to come. “I am managing for now but don’t know how long we can keep going like this.”

Complex calculation

Faced with mounting pressure from residents, Uniworld City is contemplating a system whereby domestic help can be allowed in a phased manner. “There are about 970 part-time household staffers in our complex, each with her identity card number. We plan to divide the number by three. Those with numbers that are multiples of three, get to come one day. Those that are not multiples of three and are odd numbers get to come the next day. Those that are not multiples of three and are even numbers come on the third day. The cycle gets repeated after this. But no decision has been taken as voices are strong on both sides. We are still collecting data on how many residents need their domestic help to come,” said Pradipta Dutta, a member of the Kolkata Uniworld City Apartment Owners’ Association board.

Some housing societies have had residents driving out in their cars and coming back with the cook or domestic help in the backseat, despite their entry being banned by the committee.

The debate over resumption of their service is doing the rounds of residents’ social media groups, with people asking for suggestions, sometimes resulting in heated debates. Some argued for their return claiming that with workplaces reopening, albeit with reduced staff, an office-goer in the family would have as much chance of picking up the infection and becoming an asymptomatic carrier as the cook or the help coming in. Others defended the re-entry claiming their help did not work at any other house but was faced with the counterpoint that the person would still be exposed to common areas in the complex and could pick up an infection from there. Another emerging voice was for resumption of life, claiming one would have to learn to live with the virus.

There’s also the question of payment. While all residents spoken to said they had paid the helps’ first month’s salaries in full, thereafter many would be paying half the sum. “I’ll pay them in full till May,” says Anindita Saha of CE Block. “Let’s give our helps a break for a few months. We can all make small sacrifices. And besides, compared to their problems, we have no right to complain.”

Whatever the fate of domestic helps, drivers living close by are still being asked to report for work. But with nowhere to go to, the drivers are being reduced to delivery boys, doing the shopping for the family.

Additional reporting by Sudeshna Banerjee