The job paid a pittance, with two days off a month, and sometimes the mistress of the house would call out as part-time cleaner Noor Jahan was almost out of the door “just massage my feet before you leave” – an extra service for which there was no pay.
Yet Jahan, 56, wants the job back, despite a monthly salary of only 3,000 rupees (£30) and the fact that “cleaning” served as a catch-all for cooking, ironing, watering the plants, and childcare.
In last year’s lockdown, her employer told her to stay at home, fearing that Jahan, as a slum resident, would infect her with the virus. Since then, like most of India’s estimated 4 million domestic workers, Jahan has found no work. If her employer called her, she would go back like a shot.
Middle class India has pulled up the drawbridge. In a monumental lifestyle shift, the part-time cleaners, cooks and childminders who used to troop through their homes every day for generations are no longer welcome.
For the first time in their lives, richer Indians had to do their own housework. And even when lockdowns have been lifted, they have not reverted to the old ways, their dependence on domestic workers reduced. At their front doors now are delivery men bringing vacuum cleaners, robotic cleaners and washing machines.
One company alone, LG Electronics, reported a 400-500% increase in dishwasher sales in 2020-21 compared with the previous year. Demand was so high there were waiting lists.
Sales of vacuum cleaners have tripled this year. “My monthly sales have gone up four times,” said Dyson salesman Ishaan Kapoor in New Delhi.
Shops selling robotic cleaners in Ahmedabad are selling 10-15 pieces a month as opposed to five in 2019. According to a study by Payback-Unomer Shopper in December 2020, sales of cleaning appliances rose by 55%.
Even the humble pocha or floor wipe, which required a person to squat and move in a crab-like fashion, has been replaced by the spin mop now that families need to use them themselves.
Kitchens used to be the most neglected room in middle class homes in terms of appearance and gadgets. Since domestic staff, not the family, spent time there, no one bothered to do them up or buy smart appliances.
Kanta Devi, 48, worked for the same family in Janakpuri for 15 years. After the first lockdown, her employers asked her to come back for only one day a week. After the second lockdown was lifted in May, they told her to find another job.
“They had already had a washing machine but they said they had bought a microwave, a rice cooker and a dishwasher and could manage without me,” said Devi.
Her friend Kamrunisha, 52, has been laid off for the same reason. “They said I was old and it was time for me to rest. My question is how do I feed myself without work,” she said.
This descent from poverty into extreme poverty troubles Ramendra Kumar, president of Delhi Shramik Sangathan, lobbying for India’s informal domestic workers.
There are now laws to fix minimum wages, hours or holidays. Jahan has never had a pay rise in 12 years. “I used to ask her for an increase and she would wave me aside saying next year … next year,” she said.
Some families have continued to pay salaries even though their own incomes were hit by the pandemic, or they send food. But others shut the door on their former workers. Even if some households asked their help to come back, neighbourhood associations would see and protest and guards manning the gates of gated communities would stop people from entering.
Kumar said the pain is on many levels. “It’s the pain of losing income when their husbands have also lost jobs, it’s the anxiety about plunging into a poverty they thought they had escaped, and it’s also the emotional pain of caring for a family for years and then told to go.”
Jahan’s employers, a doctor and businessman, gave her nothing to tide her over during lockdown. So Jahan asked for some pulses, sugar or milk. The reply was, she says: why are you asking me? Go ask the government.
Domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, are desperate. Family incomes have been decimated. Buying food and paying the rent is difficult. Most manage from the meagre income the man of the house earns from doing occasional odd jobs.
In Devi’s case, as a widow with a widowed daughter-in-law who lost her job as a cleaner in a school when they closed, even this is not possible.
The lifestyle shift is likely to be long-lasting. The pre-pandemic obsession among some Hindus with caste purity and “pollution” – so someone coming in to clean the bathroom cannot be allowed into the kitchen – has turned into outright paranoia in the context of the virus.
Pre-Covid, they tolerated domestic workers inside their homes but fear of the virus has made them intent on limiting contact with the outside world.
Social commentator Santosh Desai points out that even before the pandemic, housing complexes had separate lifts and entrances for domestic staff.
“If not directly related to caste, there is definitely a generalised sense that the household help who lives in unhygienic surroundings is the primary carrier of the virus, that the source of the infection is likely to be the ‘other’ and with the ‘other’, caste and class combine to become a reason for keeping the poor out,” said Desai.
For Devi, what hurts the most is not lack of financial help but her employer’s indifference, after years of participating in the family’s daily lives and comforting the two children during illnesses.
“I cared for them for 15 years but not once did my employer, despite all the deaths, call to ask, are you all right, are you safe, are your grandchildren OK?” said Devi.