Fighting Stigma, Cash Crunch: A Domestic Worker’s Pandemic Diary

Rathi, 28, lives in Chennai with her husband and two kids. She’s currently the only earning member of her family.

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Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
Reporter & Cameraperson: Smitha TK

(This video is part of our series – Her Pandemic Diary. This was first published on 8 March 2021 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark one year of lockdown. Watch more here.)

Rathi’s employer told her to not leave her dupatta around as she could “spread the allergy.” Her heart sank, but she quietly picked it up, wrapped it around herself, and continued scrubbing the pots and pans.

Twenty-eight-year-old Rathi is a domestic worker living in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, along with her husband and two kids – 8-year-old Rakesh and 10-year-old Lakshyasree.

“The utensils I clean is what they use to eat in every day. So, won’t that cause an infection? I clean their entire house so won’t I be spreading my allergy that way?” she thinks to herself. Fighting stigma has become part of her daily life after the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Rathi is a domestic worker living in Chennai. 
Rathi is a domestic worker living in Chennai. 
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

Her family was already struggling to make ends meet when the pandemic pulled the brakes on their lives, leaving her jobless for nearly a year. Earlier, she was working in about six houses as a domestic worker, earning up to Rs 10,000. That has now come down to a meagre Rs 1,500.

Rathi said during the pandemic they had no money to afford vegetables or meat.
Rathi said during the pandemic they had no money to afford vegetables or meat.
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

‘Free Ration, Incentives Didn’t Cover Even Basic Needs’

28-year-old Rathi is a domestic worker living in Chennai with her husband and two kids.
28-year-old Rathi is a domestic worker living in Chennai with her husband and two kids.
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

Until six years ago, Rathi and her family lived in the heart of the city in Saidapet. The 2015 floods robbed them of their homes and belongings, and they were then relocated to a resettlement colony in Semmencherry in the outskirts of the city.

Her husband used to work as a driver earlier but after the relocation, he has not been able to find a stable job.

“He rented an auto and was driving that around. Then COVID hit, and it became difficult to earn money driving an auto. Then the auto broke down and we couldn’t afford to fix it. He has been earning some money with odd jobs such as painting and acting,” she said.

During the pandemic, when the two of them couldn’t earn, they were relying on free ration and incentives of Rs 1,500-Rs 2,500 provided by the state government.

“We didn’t have money for food. We couldn’t even prepare a regular meal with gravy. We would just add some water to rice, make kanji (porridge), and eat that. I don’t like it at all, but we had no choice because of our financial situation.”
Rathi

Rathi has been the sole breadwinner of the family, multi-tasking as a mother, wife, and even the block leader of the Domestic Workers’ Union.

‘Anything for My Family’s Happiness’

Working hard for her family does not feel like a burden to Rathi, she says.
Working hard for her family does not feel like a burden to Rathi, she says.
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

Rathi’s kids dream of a better future for themselves – and their Amma.

“I will become an engineer and buy a saree and a car for my mother,” said Lakshyashree.

I want to get a medal to show it off to my mother and take her around in a car,” said Rakesh.

“I have explained to my kids that if we don't have money, no one will care for us. Today, we are struggling because we don’t have money. I tell them to study and work hard so that they can take care of the family,” she said.

Rathi works really hard to earn Rs 1,500 per month.
Rathi works really hard to earn Rs 1,500 per month.
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

She smiled and said, “I am only working for my husband, my kids... my family and so, I don't feel this as a burden. Who else will do all this for my family then? This is my responsibility. This is my job. This is who I am in this family.”

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