Saleem Wahab, who used to serve guests at a popular restaurant in Khan Market, has been without work since December-end. That was when the yellow alert was issued in Delhi, following a sharp spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, powered by the Omicron variant.
Restrictions under the yellow alert allowed only 50% of the sitting capacity at restaurants on weekdays, while these had to be shut during weekends. With case numbers climbing still, the Delhi government ordered closure of all restaurants in the city last Monday, allowing only take-away services.
Since eating out became restricted and then completely barred several times during the pandemic, starting from 2020, scores of staffers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, much like Wahab, have been out of jobs multiples times. The three waves of the pandemic, with the third one still raging, have taken away their only means to earn a living.
“Those who can afford and enjoy eating out cannot step out of their homes because of the Covid scare. This has forced people like us, who survive on the money earned from serving these guests, out of work. This pandemic has hit those with little means the most and has left only uncertainty to look forward to,” said Wahab. The 46-year-old is the sole breadwinner in a family of four. His family is in Aligarh.
He added that his employer has asked him to wait till the restrictions are lifted. That’s when he will see if he still requires as many employees in the restaurant. “Even if restrictions are lifted now and gradually people return to work, nobody knows when again we will be back with a job.”There are scores like Wahab, who are migrants and struggling to make ends meet. Many are planning to go back home.
Anil Kumar, 32, duty manager at a lavish farmhouse which would host large events at south Delhi’s Aurobindo Marg, had joined only two months back. After the restrictions came in, most people working there were laid off. “I am even struggling to pay my room rent, which I share with a friend. There would be little savings as since the pandemic began, I have been in and out of jobs. I need to send money to my aging parents back home, but I don’t know what to do. The city expenses are too much, I may have to go back home and find some menial job. This has been the case with most of my colleagues,” said Kumar, who hails from Himachal Pradesh.
Kumar said that 97% of the kitchen staff too has been laid off. Nobody knows when things will become better. Only some delivery boys have been hired, that too at 50% of the usual salary. “Eateries may open soon, as cases are going down now, but banquets and farmhouses, which house large gatherings, may take longer to reopen. I have tried to switch to some other profession, but employers ask for experience. I have 12 years of experience in the hotel industry, which doesn’t count in other jobs,” he said.
While Covid-19 cases saw a slight decline over the past two days, Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain on Friday said that if this continues, the government will review the curbs in a meeting of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) on Monday.Recently, the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) had given a presentation to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to reconsider the decision of closing down of restaurants in the city, citing that the hospitality industry is the first one to be hit whenever a wave strikes.
Kabir Suri, president of NRAI, said there has been no communication from the government on their representation so far. It is painful that people all across the industry are losing jobs and even small-time businesses are being shut down amid a lack of employment avenues. “It has been the same story since the pandemic struck. People are out of jobs and don’t know how to survive. If they stay back for long without a job, the cost of living here becomes too much. When they go back home, there are no jobs to make enough.”
For dine-in restaurants, he said, while the take-away service does generate some revenue, it does not cover the cost of labour and operations. “At least 15% of the labour force has gone back to their home states since the third wave struck,” he said.From chefs, to servers, cleaners, washers and all other such staff that helped one run the eating-out business have been living amid uncertainty.
Vaibhav Kaushik, 29, who was working as a chef at a luxurious hotel in the city, is jobless at the moment. He is waiting for his company to call him back. He specialises in Italian food and has won several awards including the Battle of Cuisines, a live food show. However, the last two years have been miserable for him. “I have been given a 15-day leave with pay after the fresh imposed restrictions came in. I am not sure if they will call me back but I am still waiting for something to happen,” said Vaibhav, who studied hotel management at a college in Meerut.
He added that this has become a norm for the last two years. “For six months we sit at home and then for the next three months we work. We get money for the duration we work. In the process, all my savings have been used up.”
Many of Vaibhav’s colleagues who were chefs have now gone back to their villages in Uttarakhand and Bihar and are now busy in farming activities, he said. “Some of them are hoping for the situation to get better but who knows what is in store for us,” added Vaibhav.
In a similar case, Mohammed Parvez, an assistant manager at a prestigious hotel in the city, was asked to resign a week back. The hotel told him that he will be called back once there is a vacancy. “Now I have nowhere to go,” said Parvez, who is a food and beverage man but with no options left, he is planning to switch to some other career even if it means working at a call centre.
“I have my wife and three young daughters to support. The three daughters are one, five and eight which makes it more important for me to work,” said the 46-year-old. With an experience of 15-16 years in the hotel industry, he said it will be tough for him to switch. “At a senior position, you instruct and get the work done and manage a bunch of people, but I will be a fresher at a call centre. My experience will be of no use and I will be the one instructed. What hurts me is that my experience has gone down the drain,” he said.
Not just those who are employed, but even small-time businesses have been hit hard. Moin-ul-haq Ghazali, a chef and once owner of the restaurant Namak Masala at Daryaganj, popular for its kebabs, saw his restaurant getting shut in 2020. Then he had opened a small eatery with five others as staff, which too couldn’t survive the uncertainty that the pandemic brought. Losing his earnings and customers, the 50-year-old has now been cooking from his home in Baliimaran at odd hours with the help of his wife and delivering to customers nearby.
While his cooking skills are helping him survive, he has to do the delivery as well on his own, as he is not able to hire a person for the job. “The place I used to run earlier would be packed to capacity during weekends. People loved the kebabs and Mughlai chicken, for which they would come from far off places such as Ghazipur and Gurugram. Since the pandemic struck, things took a turn for the worse for many of us. The difficulties we have been facing can’t be expressed in words. It has been tough to see my own restaurant shutting down. I had later opened a small eatery with whatever savings I had where I along with five others cooked, served and delivered at home but that too ended shortly.”
He added, “Now I take help from my wife at home and we cook together so that we can deliver it to some places on time. What can I say the government should do? It has not spared anyone and I am not alone fighting with the difficult times. But this too shall pass, I believe.”
Writing to cm, but no response so far
Recently, the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) had given a presentation to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to reconsider the decision of closing down of restaurants in the city, citing that the hospitality industry is the first one to be hit whenever a wave strikes. Kabir Suri, president of NRAI, said there has been no communication from the government on their representation so far
Vatsala Shrangi, Ankita Upadhyay and Ifrah Mufti