Hanging by a thread

By & Elizabeth Endara
Chan Banu, 25, teachers her daughter a lesson from her workbook. “We have no way to pay rent,” she said. Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

How two women are coping with the pandemic—and why Congress must pass a transformational COVID-19 relief and recovery plan to save lives in the US and around the world.

Before the pandemic, Chan Banu, 25, worked as a housemaid in Dhaka city, Bangladesh.

Like many others, she and her family left their coastal village to escape the worsening impacts of climate change and try to make a living in the city. With few options for employment, she found work cleaning houses.

But when COVID-19 hit, that lifeline evaporated.

“My employer dismissed me from my job before the lockdown,” she told Oxfam. “I could not sleep because of tension and hunger.”

It’s no mystery why. Her income—about 3,000 taka (~$35 USD) every month—was helping pay for critical expenses for her family of three: rent, food, and her daughter’s education. The situation became more dire when her husband lost his job.

“We have no way to pay rent,” she said. “Everyone in our community is eating once a day.

“What will we do?”

“Because you live in a slum, you are not allowed in my house.”

Chan Banu is one of more than 10 million underpaid domestic workers in Bangladesh—a marginalized workforce made up of mostly women that provides care for better-off families. An Oxfam survey last year found that 95 percent of workers interviewed had lost their jobs because of the lockdown. As one household employer put it, “Because you live in a slum, you are not allowed in my house.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has already cost millions of lives and is pushing millions more into hunger and poverty across the globe. Women are bearing the brunt of this fallout—according to a recent UN Women report, the pandemic is expected to push 18 percent more women then men between the ages of 25-34 like Chan Banu into extreme poverty by 2021. In the US, women accounted for more than 85 percent of job losses in December 2020 as the unemployment rate for Black and Latina women exceeded that of white women by more than 3 percentage points by the beginning of this year.

Chan Banu and her daughter. “My employer dismissed me from my job before the lockdown,” she told Oxfam. “I could not sleep because of tension and hunger.” Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Many domestic workers in Bangladesh are now confronting more than unemployment and hunger because of the pandemic. The aforementioned survey also found that more than 90 percent of female domestic workers interviewed were experiencing abuse in their homes from in-laws or husbands because they could no longer bring home money.

“I asked God for this disease not to hit me hard.”

Evelyn (pseudonym), an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, has been employed at a poultry plant in North Carolina for 13 years. She is a hard and diligent worker, dedicated to earning enough money to provide for herself and her daughter.

Evelyn (pseudonym) walks to work at a poultry plant in Morgantown, North Carolina. “[Our employers] didn’t care about what was happening,” she said. Photo credit: Mary Babic/Oxfam

When the pandemic hit, Evelyn was faced with an impossible choice—risk her health and safety by going to work in unsafe conditions as a diabetic, or face poverty and job loss.

For Evelyn, this wasn’t a choice at all. She had to provide for her family even as she saw her coworkers one-by-one fall ill and, in several cases, die. Beyond the health risks, many workers like her have lost jobs because of contracting COVID or having to stay home with their children when schools closed.

“[Our employers] didn’t care about what was happening,” she said. “We heard the disease was spreading all over the country and they didn’t care."

Evelyn is just one of the millions of workers facing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color. A CDC report from 2020 revealed that Latinx workers at meat and chicken processing plants have been the hardest hit by coronavirus, accounting for 56 percent of cases reported in plants in 21 states. This is just one of the industries in which frontline workers, most of whom are women, continue to suffer the most while the companies that employ them face little to no accountability.

Eventually Evelyn herself, along with her daughter, contracted the virus. Evelyn told her employer, but the stipulation for receiving two weeks of paid sick leave is to provide proof of a positive test. This may sound easy enough, but for undocumented workers employed at these factories it can be incredibly difficult to access the systems and resources needed to even get tested in the first place. Even when workers are able to provide a positive test to their employer, many are too afraid to take this time off of work for fear of losing employment.

The hands of a poultry worker. Photo credit: Mary Babic/Oxfam

Millions of undocumented workers do vital jobs that have been labeled as essential during the pandemic. However, if they leave the workforce for any reason—illness, disability, or loss of work—they have no source of income and no way to access crucial benefits like unemployment insurance.

Fortunately for Evelyn, her illness was mild, but she continues to be fearful about going to work because of the lack of safety measures. For women like her there are no guarantees or lifelines—even in a pandemic, rent still needs to be paid, children cared for, and food put on the table.

How you can support women like Chan Banu and Evelyn

Through Oxfam’s partner, the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, Evelyn is speaking up and demanding better treatment and benefits, including paid leave, health and safety measures, and hazard pay. In Bangladesh, Oxfam partner Nari Maitree has helped domestic workers assert their rights and provided humanitarian assistance, including packages of lifesaving food. “This food aid is like God‘s gift to me,” Chan Banu said. “I am able to cook in the morning and feed my daughter.”

But no one individual, community, or country can deal with this crisis alone. That’s why Oxfam is calling on Congress to pass a transformational COVID-19 recovery plan that helps families cope with the economic impacts of the pandemic; gets people back to work; and begins to tackle the economic, gender, and racial inequalities that have been exacerbated by this crisis in the US and around the world.

Sign our petition below to tell Congress to invest in the following:

  • Life-saving foreign assistance: We need at least $20 billion in life-saving foreign aid to tackle the global COVID-19 crisis. This funding must address immediate health needs, including immunizations and maternity care; lessen the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, including loss of wages, rise in hunger, and disruptions in education; as well as support humanitarian relief, including emergency food assistance.
  • Robust investment in the US economy: We need to support those who’ve lost jobs, enable workers to take paid time off when they fall ill, put money in the pockets of everyone, and boost wages. We are asking for funding that includes at least $50 billion for the child care industry and families, direct cash payments for immediate support, expanding the child tax credit, extending the safety net for the unemployed, and a $15 minimum wage and paid leave for those still working.

We must work together—in our communities and across borders—with dignity and compassion. Rapid deployment of US assistance will help families put food on the table, provide medicine for their families, and get people back to work.

Add your name: Congress, pass a transformational COVID-19 relief and recovery plan now.

Sign the petition

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