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In a search for identity and rights, India’s domestic workers join hands
By Abha Sharma
Festivals are a time to celebrate and reconnect with family and friends. It's also a time when most salaried people get a bonus from their employers.

Mangla Das, 34, is not one of them. In fact, in the weeks that are leading up to major festivals like Durga Puja or Diwali, this domestic worker from Kolkata is always fearful of losing her job. "Many households oust their domestic help two-three months before Puja, to escape having to give them a new sari, sweets or gifts," she said. Over the last 10 years, Das has reportedly lost around the same number of jobs on the eve of the Puja holidays.

For domestic workers, demonstrations of generosity on the part of their employers are still rare. Those who are 'lucky' enough to have not lost their job are made to work extra hours to help the household gear up for the festivities. In return for all their hard work, they hardly get suitable compensation. At best, it's either old clothes or some other inexpensive alternate.

Das shared her on-the-job experiences at a recent consultation for domestic workers in Jaipur, Rajasthan, organised by Jagori, a Delhi-based women's resource centre. Women from various parts of the country, including Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, came together to discuss issues ranging from wage disparity and non-existent benefits to harassment in the workplace. They were joined by representatives of various organisations working on the issue of domestic work.

Said Shakuntala Naskar, 43, from Kolkata, "If one works in a factory one gets overtime. But there is no regard for the time or labour of a domestic worker. When we protest against ill-treatment or injustice, employers simply hire new help who may be ready to work for even less pay. But we are determined to change things and have started opposing this trend. For instance, most of us ask for double salary as bonus during Puja now." Naskar works as a cook for a family of five and gets a measly Rs 1,500 per month.

Differential wages continue to remain a core issue, said Anita from Delhi. "There is no uniformity in salary paid, no fixed rules for weekly offs and no talk of maternity or medical benefits. Moreover, there is no way one can hope of getting compensation after an accident at workplace or even a pension for a time when we are no longer capable of doing hours of hard labour in homes," she elaborated.

Voicing her strong opinion, Suseela from Bangalore said that domestic workers continue to be ignored by the central and state governments as well as the national and state women's commissions. "In fact, we are chided when we insist on getting compensation in case of an accident at the workplace," she added.

Susheela also narrated an incident of a 13-year-old domestic worker, who had died because she was ill-treated by her employers. The teenage girl had been penalised for having eaten food even as the family was fasting. While this was an extreme case, according to Susheela, it's not uncommon for domestic workers to be given leftovers or stale food and expected to be grateful for it. There are homes in which there are separate vessels demarcated for their use as well.

While all the women said they are used to facing such discriminatory behaviour on an on-going basis, what pushes them over the edge are incidents of sexual assault and rape, particularly of minor girls. Complaints of innuendos or indecent remarks by the men, mostly in the absence of the woman of the house, were also commonly reported. Of course, they also added that any protest over such occurrences was simply brushed aside.

"All this happens because we have no identity. As workers we deserve respect and fair treatment," remarked Deepa from Uttarakhand. She joined the others at the consultation to raise the slogan, "Mehnat ka naam ho, maan aur samman ho, shram ka vazib daam ho, zindagi na gumnam ho (Recognise our work, give us due respect and proper wages)".

Demanding their rightful place as a legitimate workforce in India, they said, "We want to be recognised as 'kamgar' (workers)." Speaking on behalf of the group, Indore's Manubhai Malvi elaborated, "How can anyone take us seriously if we have no proof of work experience or any mechanism to get our attendance recorded. Domestic workers are indispensable to most households and yet no one seems to be thinking of our rights or welfare."

Helping these industrious women fight for their rights in a more formal and organised manner are several domestic workers' unions that have come up in different parts of the country over the last few years. Kolkata-based Parichiti, Astitva in Dehradun, the Kashtkari Gharkamgar Sanghatna in Thane, Stree Jagruti Samiti in Bangalore and Sangini in Madhya Pradesh, are among the various forums that are motivating domestic workers to take time out to discuss their problems and look for workable solutions.

So far, the women have responded with enthusiasm. They may be doing back-breaking work for long hours during the week, they may have no time for rest or recreation, but when they take time off for their monthly meetings, it fills them with new hope and confidence. In Jaipur, women like Malti, Saraswati and Geeta never miss the meetings that are held in their respective localities for their convenience.

While they have been protesting against the injustices meted to them through their unions, some domestic workers have found their own ingenuous ways to convey their message. A domestic worker from Sonarpur area of Kolkata recalled how her "malkin" (female employer) used to always give her a sari without the accompanying blouse and petticoat, which are needed to complete the ensemble. So one day she decided to simply wear the sari and show up at her door. Sure enough, the employer took corrective action!

It's all about bringing a change in attitudes, asserted Geeta Menon of the Bangalore-based Stree Jagruti Samiti. She feared that as long as the domestic worker is confused at the notion of working in "someone's household" and not at the "workplace", they will not be able to effectively raise their voice. "The issues of wages and rights can only be handled when we think in terms of an employer-employee relationship instead of the of master-servant relationship," she added.

Their on-going advocacy and efforts have not gone entirely unrecognised. State governments in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal have started to give this vast unorganised sector their due by initiating some social security and welfare measures. But there is a long way to go. By raising issues like the right work conditions, uniform wages, leave, maternity benefits and protection from violence, sexual assaults and even reportedly trafficking by placement agencies, domestic workers have to continue their struggle until the National Policy on Domestic Workers addresses their situation.

The draft National Policy on Domestic Workers, as recommended by the Taskforce on Domestic Workers, is ready but reportedly awaits cabinet approval. Once it is through, the domestic workers will be able to get benefits under Workmen's Compensation Act, Trade Union Act, Payment of Wages, Maternity Benefits and Contractual Labour Act.

While some slogans at the consultation in Jaipur symbolically summed up their grievances - "Tension nahin, pension chahiye. Budhape me aaram aur suraksha chahiye (We want pension and security for our old age) - others beautifully conveyed their hope: "Yeh boond bhar asha hai, par hamara sangarsh jari hai, kyonki yeh hamari pehchan (identity) ki ladai hai. (We have hope in our hearts but our struggle continues. After all, this is a fight for our identity)."

(© Women's Feature Service)
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News Updated at : Sunday, November 4, 2012
 
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