(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)
Suleka Khalid walked into the Ernakulam Boat Jetty around 3pm. She was returning home after a day's work. The 53-year-old woman, a native of Vypeen, is one of the thousands of women who work as housemaids in and around Kochi. All days a week, except Sunday, she starts from her home around 7.30 in the morning. She boards a boat to reach the city and from there she catches a bus to reach the house at Muttar near Edappally where she works. She finishes the day's job around 2:30pm and the return journey starts.
“These days buses don't come as frequently as they used to during the pre-COVID days. Bus fare has also doubled,” Suleka told this reporter, like a prelude to her pandemic story – one that many of her colleagues share.
Suleka and her family, consisting of husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandchild, have seen all the dark sides of the pandemic. She had to stay jobless for months, her son lost his job and three in the family, including Suleka, had fallen prey to the virus.
Suleka started working as a housemaid 25 years ago, when her son was only a few months old. She earned Rs 300 a month those days. In March 2020, immediately before the lockdown was imposed she was earning nearly 10,000 per month. “That time I used to work at one house everyday and did part-time job once in a week at two other houses. Once the lockdown started, I could not travel and was unable to work. I didn't know what to do,” Suleka said.
Suleka's husband is unable to work and she and her son were the earning members of the family. The lockdown hit the family hard as her son also lost his job. “My son used to work in a textile shop. After the lockdown, he was laid off. In fact, he was asked to work for almost half of the salary he used to be paid. Thus he was forced to quit. He is yet to find a new job.” That leaves Suleka the sole breadwinner of the family that stays in a rented house in Fort Kochi.
“I remained jobless for four months last year due to the lockdown. Those days, we really struggled to survive. We managed to have four meals a day with the food kit provided by the state government. But for all other expenses, there was nothing with us. We struggled to pay the rent and the EMIs of the loans we had availed. Though we got a moratorium on the loans for a few months, the interest amount kept mounting. We had mortgaged whatever little gold we had and once the lockdown was lifted, we had no option but to sell it all,” Suleka said. The family still has a debt of a few lakhs.
Amid all the pandemic-induced gloom, Suleka was lucky enough to be taken back by her employer. “During the lockdown, that family had appointed a woman from their neighbourhood. However, when I called them and told them about my situation, they took me back. They also gave me a hike considering the rise in bus fare,” she said. She, however, works only at one house now. “My health is not in good shape now, especially after I contracted COVID. I can't run from one house to another as I used to do earlier,” she said.
Suleka, her husband and daughter-in-law contracted COVID this April. “We survived with the help of SEWA when we were down with COVID. SEWA provided us with food kits,” she said. SEWA is Self Employed Women's Association, a national trade union with a membership base of over 1.5 million poor, self-employed women workers from the informal economy across 16 states in the country. Suleka is a state committee member of SEWA. She said a standardised minimum wage, a proper health insurance and an authorised identity card for all domestic workers were among the long-pending demands of her sector. “An identity card would have been of huge help during the unlock days when there were frequent police checks,” she reasoned.
As Suleka was about to wind her story up, Seenath, her longterm friend and colleague at SEWA, came after her work and joined the conversation. Seenath has been working at a house in Vazhakala. Her story was pretty similar to that of Suleka. She also remained jobless for months, staring at mounting debts. That she is a victim of an abusive marriage added to her woes. Her divorce petition is pending before a court. “The lockdown hit us so badly that I still wonder how I survived without going mad. Luckily, we got our job back. There are many women in our neighbourhoods who lost their job due to the pandemic,” Seenath said.