Tabassum Riaz is among hundreds of domestic workers who have been told to go on unpaid leave in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases continue to mount in Karachi.
The girl in scruffy clothes and old footwear who doesn’t even know her correct age, but says she’s around 16 years old, is the sole breadwinner of her family. She cleans the floor and washes the dishes at a bungalow in a Defence Housing Authority neighbourhood. She has been working there for the past three years for Rs18,000 a month.
Almost three years ago, she and her mother had been working at three different flats for a living, and life was not too difficult back then. But after the death of Tabassum’s brother — an office clerk — in a road accident, their mother fell ill and then got bedridden.
Hardships caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic are twofold for Tabassum. She is responsible for three people — her ailing mother and her deceased brother’s wife and son — living in a two-room house with a small patio.
She thinks her employer could have given her paid leave because they could easily afford to do so. “Paid leave would not have made a dent in their wealth,” she said with an anxious smile.
On payday, the first thing she does on her way back home is buying medicine for her mother that costs almost one-fourth of her salary. “I’m worried about my mother’s medicine the most. I’ll go and request Baji [her employer] to pay me some of my salary in advance.”
Nasreen’s cold and impassive face speaks volumes about her financial anxiety. She is employed as a cook at a house in the PECHS neighbourhood and her husband is a mason who works on daily wages.
When COVID-19 cases started to rise in Pakistan, her employer gave her a general overview of the situation, asking her to wear a mask and sanitise her hands before entering the kitchen.
Nasreen was maintaining hygiene personally and at work by taking all the precautionary measures, but as the virus spread began to increase, she was told not to come to work until the pandemic was over.
“I was all right until madam [her employer] told me that she won’t pay me for the days I’m off work because they’re also facing a financial crunch due to the lockdown,” she said. “I have five mouths to feed and Rs3,700 in my pocket for our food, house rent, utility bills and medical supplies as the month is coming to an end,” she added nervously.
“I pay Rs5,000 for the single room we live in, and the landlord would never waive off the rent; he shows up at our door on the first of every month, regular as clockwork.”
Everyone has been advised by the health officials in Pakistan and across the globe to observe social distancing so that the contagion can be controlled, but it’s not an option for many people in our society. Either their employers or their hunger pushes them to risk their lives by leaving the house.
Orangi Town’s Aleena Iftikhar, a single mother of two, works in a gated North Nazimabad society. She wakes up at five in the morning and leaves home at eight after doing all her house chores and feeding her kids.
She commutes by bus every day. But after a ban on public transport during the escalating lockdown in the city, she discussed her situation with her employer. She was given two options: either continue working with all the precautionary measures or go on unpaid leave until the COVID-19 ordeal persisted.
At a time when people-to-people interaction is a definite no-no and public transport has been banned, she is forced to choose between her work and her health. And for her, going to work is the only option to keep the stove running at home.
She walks for 40 minutes just to get to work, replying time and time again to police and Rangers officials’ questions about her destination. “It’s very uncomfortable, but I’ve learnt to wear a mask and use a hand sanitiser in the past week,” she said.
“Social distancing is not an option for thousands of domestic workers in the city. I know many of them who are in trouble due to the coronavirus outbreak, because their employers aren’t willing to give paid leave to them.”
On the verge of tears, she added in a quivering voice: “I want to stay home with my kids and take care of them, but missing the pay isn’t something a single mother with two kids can afford to do.”
Azmat Bibi, a 56-year-old widow, started working as domestic help in 2014 after her husband’s death. She lives in a one-room rented house in Chakra Goth and has been taking care of her 23-year-old son who was left paralysed due to the poliovirus when he was four.
She works at two houses in the Korangi area. One of her employers has promised to pay her for the days she is off work, but the other one has refused to give her paid leave. She is still going to work. “I don’t care about my own health. I just don’t want my son to get the coronavirus from me in case I get infected by anyone.”
She believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit her harder than anyone else. “I was already juggling between work and parenthood, and now this virus and lockdown in the city have added to my miseries.”
She would have been happy to get more free time if not for her financial insecurity that has been making her feel miserable at home. “I don’t think the coronavirus outbreak is slowing down in this country any time soon. Hunger is going to kill us before this virus.”
She thinks the government should order people to pay low-paid workers so they can observe social distancing without the fear of not being able to put food on the table. “If people tell their domestic workers to stay at home, they must still pay them.”
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