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Dignity and visibility for domestic workers: no longer workers in the shadow!

The roots of prejudice against domestic workers in India run deep.

Domestic workers gathered in India. IDWF/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The voices of ‘workers in the shadow’ may not be loud, yet they are slowly but surely emerging into the sociopolitical landscape of India. Domestic workers of today work in a different system than their sisters of yesteryear. Part-time as well as many full-day workers now live in their own homes, commuting to their employers’ houses as regular places of work. Those of us that work in the unions impress this upon workers: that the employer’s home is not their ‘home’ but their ‘workplace’, their ‘factory’!

Most ‘part timers’ work long hours across many different houses. They suffer caste discrimination and assaults upon their dignity, working without many of the rights enjoyed by other workers, including social security, leave, and various types of protection. The majority are women, as gendered notions of housework consider it natural that young girls should slave away at work that is devalued. Tens of thousands of the domestic workers are to be found in urban and semi-urban houses, invisibly contributing to the economy and the household.

There are also a large number of migrant domestic workers who continue to work as ‘live-in’ employees, lost in the shadows where employers and recruitment agencies all too easily, and all too often, find ways to exploit them. They work long hours with no rest or free time, have their salary withheld, and suffer from all kinds of indignities including sexual harassment, severe isolation, and ill health.

It is not understood in India, as it is in some parts of the world, that domestic workers are neither servants nor machines.

It is not understood in India, as it is in some parts of the world, that domestic workers are neither servants nor machines. They are workers, part of a productive economy, and their identity as workers must be recognised and respected. Yet getting to this point is difficult. The invisibility of domestic workers, with no defined workplace or employer and with the subtle physical, emotional, and verbal abuse that takes place in the privacy of the home, makes it extremely challenging to build up domestic workers collectives. It’s a challenge because most of the women themselves believe they, as workers, are devalued.

Strategies for organising: the innovative path

Keeping these facts in mind, it is obvious that strategies for organising will vary. The part-timers and full-day workers, living in the slums of Bangalore, are contacted directly through cultural programmes, awareness programmes, membership drives and through the existing NGOs and CBOs in different residential areas. Public sittings, information surveys and street corner meetings are also held in these areas. Some volunteers have been working in colleges to sensitize the students to their own domestic help.

One of the important, but not necessarily easy ways of reaching domestic workers in their residential colonies is through NGOs working in these areas. The women’s organisation Stree Jagruti Samiti (SJS), for example, works in the neighbourhoods to spread awareness on issues faced by domestic workers. The Domestic Workers Rights Union, supported by SJS, has gone farther, attempting to collectivise domestic workers and raise up leaders from amongst the domestic workers themselves.

One key way the union has done this is through the establishment of Worker Facilitation Centres, as they help us get away from the notion of individual struggle in a vacuum. Working under the slogan Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha – ‘Struggle and Build’ – our first pilot centre in Bangalore drew in over 4000 domestic workers and more than 12,000 other unorganised workers in just one year. The centres have three main functions. First, they register workers and help us build databases of contacts. Second, they provide workers with information, namely how to access public social welfare schemes. And third, they offer a grievance redress mechanism to help with workplace and personal issues.

The strategies to organise residential or live-in domestic workers have evolved by trial and error. These workers are the most difficult to organise, and getting information about their numbers or contacting them is sometimes impossible. The union has met workers at the gates of their employers’ homes to raise awareness and to collect information. Attempts have also been made to create a forum with employers, who have shown more concern as of late for what domestic workers suffer. The sisterhood solidarity is evident in cases of domestic violence, or when neighbours ill treat workers. But when it comes to workplace issues like wages, leave, etc., they mostly remain silent. So the attempt is now being made to form an inclusive partnership with the employer so that both employers and employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities. We at the union are currently in the process of drawing up a code of practice that we hope will further this project.

Finally, we also take up certain cases that are likely to build local awareness and get picked up in the media. As the movement likes to say, ‘effective media is the best organiser’, and the process of investigating these cases helps us train lay members and leaders alike.

Challenges

Organising domestic workers not a smooth process. The very nature of the work, both in terms of duties and locations, is scattered. This makes collectivisation very difficult. The women would also ask “what will we get if we join your group?” or claim “our employers are good; we don’t need to join you”. In addition, there was always an underlying fear of losing one’s job, even though awareness of what a union actually is was low. And, given that workplace definition and employer employee relations are arbitrary, individual notions prevail and result in low levels of collective consciousness.

One of the major hindrances to organising was that many women had not told their families that they were working as domestic workers. There is a shame, a stigma in working as domestic workers. This stigma comes from their caste locations as well as the notion that they go to houses where there are ‘other’ men. It also comes from a societal notion of housework, which is largely devalued, gendered, and called women’s work. This further affects perceptions of domestic workers.

The union activists say that it is easier to successfully organise as self help groups rather than as a proper union. This is partly due to a lack of awareness of even being workers, as they don’t work in a factory, but in someone else’s house. However, things are changing since the Domestic Workers Rights Union was formed, and now many domestic workers have joined the Union.

There is no legislative framework for domestic workers in India, and their work is not ‘scheduled work’. Still neglected, although there is now the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (C189). The struggle at all times to establish an identity, to pressurise, to fight apathy, to gain recognition.

The police and the judiciary are indifferent, apathetic, and do not see it important that a domestic worker has rights.

We face a special challenge when the union handles allegation of theft or crime, as the police and the judiciary are indifferent, apathetic, and do not see it important that a domestic worker has rights. Constantly delaying, seeking to effect compromise and taking the side of the employers – the revictimisation continues. All actions of authority are arbitrary, and workers face violence both in the privacy of their own homes as well as in the privacy of their employers homes!

A major stumbling block when the union takes up cases is that there is no proof of their labour. Be it salary, or leave, or dismissal – the employers simply deny that the workers have worked in their house. The labour department is of little help, as it’s inefficient and lacks interest. The labour commissioner has acknowledged that lack of knowledge regarding the unorganised sector makes for a huge challenge. Having dealt with the organised sector, these officials find it difficult to comprehend or to imagine, in the absence of a statutory framework, how to deal with the issues of the unorganised sector.

The feudal mindset prevails, although life has become globalised. The notions of caste, the discriminatory, arrogant, suspicious attitudes, the disrespect even shown by the children of the employers, social marginalisation – the roots of all these run deep. There is no concept of overtime work or pay. They are seen only as ‘helping’. The loans given by employers to workers are also framed as helping, introducing a problematic element of mutuality that compounds the difficulties for the workers.

Signs of success

The impact of the effort to organise domestic workers is certainly being felt although it may not be clearly visible and defined. There are noticeable changes in the women between the time they joined the union and today. This is evident in the small assertions made by the women and the recognition they have received, such as when they boldly raise the issue of caste at their workplace. In most households in India, women face discrimination because most of them belong to the Dalit caste. Very often, employers give them food on a plastic plate that is specially allocated for them. One domestic worker broached this issue with her employer saying, “I am not an outcast. I clean and wash your house, vessels and clothes. We both have the same blood. I will not drink from a separate plastic cup”. Her assertion helped her to claim her dignity.

There are noticeable changes in the women between the time they joined the union and today.

 Similarly, other women have shared how their employers have begun to see them in a new light. Many of the domestic workers now have a weekly day off; get some extra money as a bonus and some have even got an increase in salary! The women too have realised the value of collective strength and have managed to voice and take up issues collectively. Many a time, women have themselves handled issues of allegations of theft and have also negotiated for themselves. Many domestic workers have expressed how their being a member of a union has given them new respect in the police station. They have gained courage in their own lives.

The women tell the story of a fellow union member named Shaila, who was wrongfully accused of theft. Shaila was thrown out of her employers’ house, and was standing at their gate, crying, when Vonamma, the president of the executive committee, and other members of the union came to support her.

Vonamma was able to articulate to the employers that if they were intent on firing Shaila, they would have to make an official police complaint and find some evidence of her guilt. The employers finally gave in, admitting that there had been no theft. Shaila was unable to keep the job, but she was able to retain her pride and her employer was made to apologise. It seems like the community that the union has helped build among these women has been a major driving force for their strength – both collectively and individually. The women have been inspired by one another, and are learning from each other’s experiences.

Vonamma was seven years old when she began domestic work. Born in Bangalore, her father died very soon after her birth. Her mother – also a domestic worker – was left with the task of raising eight children. None of them received an education, and as a result, they also joined the workforce. Vonamma toiled away in a kitchen, standing on a stool that would raise her small figure to the kitchen counter, and was beaten by her employers when she displayed tiredness. Now she is 29, unmarried, and lives with her mother.

The first step is to recognise that these places are no longer just slums, but labour colonies. Most of the women in the union live in slums, and SJS’s work involves recognising that these urban spaces are not merely dwelling places, but sources of labour. These women are economic entities. Making the effort to move on from thinking of slums merely as residences is making the effort to recognise the work that these women do as wives, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law, caretakers, and as women living on the economic margins.

Hailing from various parts of South India, the shared characteristic among the women of SJS is a lack of education and skills. Most only went through a few years of school. Saraswati, a member of the union, says that most of the women state their own terms and conditions to future employers, and inform them of their involvement with the union. It appears that being unionised has given these women a greater sense of self and belonging – some larger context and perspective from which to think about the work that they do and their legitimate, economic contributions to their communities.

While most of the women have resigned themselves to lives in the informal sector – lives that, in all probability, will continue to be on the margins of Bangalore’s society and economy. They seem determined to fight for the rights and dignities they deserve, and for happier lives for their children. The most difficult step in this movement appears to be the translation of these dreams of respectable wages, regular bonuses, and workplace dignity into reality.

Two factors stand out more clearly than others as hindrances to the fulfilment of these dreams: firstly, the oppression and mistreatment of domestic workers is firmly embedded in Indian middle-class society’s psyche, and much of the struggle for these women’s rights depends on some level of malleability on the part of their employers. Secondly, there is a sense of inertia among the women when it comes to taking larger steps forward, especially with regard to their own literacy and education. Solving these problems – for example, mobilising these women to participate in adult education programmes of some sort – is an expensive, resource-consuming endeavour.

At the social and legal levels it has been assertions by the women about their dignity and rights that have led to some changes. The government is engaged in policy framework discussions, the Karnataka government has included domestic workers on its board of unorganised workers – after much struggle from our union – and the ILO Domestic Workers Convention now exists. The labour department has been more accepting and inclusive when interacting with the domestic workers union, and they have taken our concept of worker facilitation centres seriously.

The union has managed to put pressure on the police and the criminal justice system, and two cases regarding migrant domestic workers were successfully handled by the High Court. The cumulative impact of these processes are slowly becoming visible in other districts, from Mangalore to Belgaum. The voices are growing louder and the exploitation is becoming more subtle, always still caught up in the warp of feudal relationships.

Women's rights are at such a premium in our country that even a few hundred individuals raising their voice and trying to break the culture of silence is of immeasurable value. Every voice counts because women have to surpass class, caste and patriarchy controls to gain visibility and dignity.

About the author

Geeta Menon is a social activist, co-founder of Stree Jagruti Samiti, and joint secretary of Domestic Workers Rights Union. Three decades ago she began to fight injustice and the exploitation of the working and toiling people, inspired by the strong, working class women in India who laugh, love, and live in spite of caste and patriarchal oppression. She is the recipient of many local and national awards for empowerment, achievement, and social entrepreneurship.


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