It was a rare Monday morning when I was home, thanks to the work from option that I’ve take up like many others in the city.

I opened the door to take the trash out and was greeted by Jyoti Rana, a housekeeping staffer in our apartment building. In her early 20s, Jyoti comes to work from Ove village in Kharghar. “Haven’t you heard about the virus? Don’t you get leave from work?” I asked.

Pat came the reply, with an accompanying giggle, “Yes, I have heard from people about this new disease — that it doesn't have a cure and hands have to be washed regularly. But we do not get a holiday. Who will do this if we don’t come to work?”

Jyoti and her 17-year-old brother Pawan are part of the building’s cleaning and housekeeping staff.

Little choice

While the Covid-19 scare has shut down almost every physical workspace in the city, people like Jyoti and Pawan have little choice but to continue working.

Even as we live ‘digital’ lives and talk endlessly about machine learning and virtual reality, the blue-collar workforce remains the backbone of the economy. The domestic help, drivers, plumbers, electricians and delivery personnel who keep us going can hardly work from remote locations. Considering that social contact is the central contributing factor to the spread of the pandemic, the unorganised or semi-organised workforce is at high exposure points every day.

Their safety, too

While customers’ in-boxes are flooded with awareness and safety emails from companies like Ola and Uber, their drivers have to be on the roads to meet their daily targets.

Nandu Matale, a 41-year-old Ola driver from Panvel, who has been with the cab aggregator for two years now, is concerned about the exposure. “The company sent me a message to keep the vehicle clean and get myself checked if I feel sick, because the customer’s safety is important. I don’t check who sits in my cab — what about my safety? I still have to complete my target number of trips every day to earn my commission,” rued Matale, whose wife teaches Marathi in a municipality school.”

Akshay and Ravi, delivery agents from Zomato and Swiggy, respectively, stood outside a fast-food joint in an usually busy Mumbai suburb, awaiting their orders. Asked what precautions they’re taking amid the virus outbreak, Akshay, untying a handkerchief from his face, said: “We’re carrying sanitisers and covering our faces while driving. What else can we do? We have to travel to all these locations and deliver the orders, it’s our job.”

Ravi nodded in agreement before remarking, “After Holi, the number of orders per day has come down drastically, especially for non-vegetarian food. I usually get 15-17 orders per day; now, it is hardly 10 to 12, but I hope it goes back to normal. Today has been especially bad, with just four orders since morning.”

The 26-year-old, who moved to Mumbai from Raipur with his uncle six months ago, was happy when he got the job, and hopes he doesn’t have to go back home.

As people increasingly worry about hygiene and sanitation, and keep off public and shared transport, livelihoods that depend on consumption have taken a hit. Some kaali-peeli (black-and-yellow) taxi drivers outside the airport, who’re usually over-burdened with rides, have decided to go back to their hometowns until business drifts back to normalcy.

Cleanliness, godliness

Some live on prayer as they go about fending for themselves. Once such is Mani Nadar, who hails from Tamil Nadu and works as a driver for a private taxi service in Goregaon. “I am a man of prayer and I pray every day. I try to leave the rest to God. I keep my cab and surroundings clean because I have to go on.”

That the white-collar workforce can work from home only if the blue-collar one goes about its daily routine is an uncontested fact.

“Amidst all of this, work has to go on and hats off to these people — this workforce is practically holding the country and economy together,” said Rituparna Chakraborty, President of the Indian Staffing Federation, which manages and looks after the interests of temporary or flexible workers. “If they stop, then a lot of the white-collar operations will have to stop.”