June 15, 2014
Domestic Worker’s Struggle for Recognition

Archana Prasad

MORE than 200 representatives of the Domestic Workers Association, led by the Janvadi Mahila Samiti (JMS), an affiliate of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), held a convention in Rai Umanath Hall of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on June 2, 2014. Amidst the slogans of ‘We Shall Fight, We Shall Win,’ these women demanded that they and their rights as workers must be recognised. These women workers represented 12 districts of the state. The convention was attended, among others, by Madhu Garg (president, AIDWA, UP), Vandana Mishra (People’s Union of Civil Liberties), Asha Mishra (National Federation of Indian Women, UP), Sehba Farooqui (AIDWA secretariat member) and Archana Prasad (Jawaharlal Nehru University and JMS Delhi). The convention recounted the multifaceted experiences of domestic workers and also presented the results of the survey conducted amongst 288 domestic workers in 15 areas of Lucknow. CLASS & SOCIAL PROFILE OF DOMESTIC WORKERS The JMS led survey, conducted by the Domestic Workers Union, shows that most of the women doing domestic work belong to dalit and backward classes. Of the 288 women surveyed, 148 were dalits and 112 belonged to other backward classes whereas 10 women were Muslims. About 195 of these women were between the ages of 25 and 35. The sample also included 30 young girls who were between the ages of 15 and 20 years. In terms of their class composition, domestic workers belong to the poorest sections of the unorganised working class. The predominant occupation of their husbands is casual work (seen in 112 cases) and rickshaw pulling (seen in 35 cases). At least 47 women have husbands who do not do any work because of illness or disability. The average size of the family among these domestic workers is six, with most of the women having four to five children. The girl children above the age of 15 years mostly go to work with their mothers, whereas the children of 12-15 years stay at home and look after the house. It is therefore not surprising that about 272 children do not go to school and about 275 are school dropouts in these families. As in Delhi, 65 to 70 percent of the concerned women in Lucknow too started doing domestic work in the last five to ten years. This clearly shows that women do domestic work out of desperation and economic distress. CONDITIONS OF WORK It is well known that domestic workers form a large part of the unorganised sector and enter into non-monitored labour relations with their employers. Like in the case of the rest of the country, the domestic workers of UP too work, at an average, for eight to 11 hours a day and earn an average income of Rs 2,000 to 3,500 per month. This works out an average income of Rs 8 to Rs 14.50 per hour. At an average, a women washing utensils for a house of five people gets Rs 400-500 per month; and a woman doing cleaning and swabbing in a house with four rooms gets Rs 500-700 per month, whereas she gets Rs. 800-1000 per month for swabbing and cleaning a two-storeyed flat. These rates are slightly lower than those in Delhi where the average hourly income is about Rs. 17 per hour. The women reported that their wages had not been enhanced in the last two years. However, this difference is irrelevant to the situation of the domestic worker as these rates are far below the minimum wages and are characteristic of the inhuman conditions to which these women are subjected. Like the Delhi survey, the Lucknow survey clearly shows that 98 percent of the women get no designated holidays and their wages were cut in case they had to take leave. They did not get any holidays even in case of the festivals. Only two percent of the women reported that they got four or five paid holidays in a month. THEIR FIGHT FOR DIGNITY The discussions in the convention and the findings of the survey clearly pointed out the caste discrimination within the households in which these women worked. For example, women like Sushila from Bastoli reported that even though they are called to clean the house they are not allowed to touch the sofa or the utensils. They are given tea and food in broken utensils which are kept separately from the rest of the house. The women ask why it is that those who keep the houses of their employers spot clean are considered dirty themselves. Most of the women are not allowed access to bathrooms. Another important aspect that has come out in the survey is the fact that Muslim women were found to be working only in houses owned by Muslims. This clearly shows a religious divide in even the hiring of domestic workers. Another undignified aspect of their status is of the cases of false theft and of physical molestation faced by the women. One woman pointed towards repeated sexual abuse which went unreported till she came in contact with the JMS. In another case, Kusum from Lucknow shared her experience of how she was accused of stealing Rs 15 lakh from a house where she worked. When they went to her house, the employers and the police found that she lived in a broken hut and could not have stolen the money. The employer threatened her and the police continued to harass her and her family till the JMS came to her rescue and gave her the courage to fight. Two percent of the surveyed women said that they face verbal and physical abuse but do not report it. In regard to all these cases, most of the women speakers emphasised that their fight is not merely for better salaries or for decent conditions of work, but also for their dignity and a dignified life for their families. DISMAL CONDITIONS & LIFESTYLE These abysmal and undignified conditions of work have had a very bad impact on the health and life of the women and their families. About 98 percent of the women report malnutrition, regular headache and backache, low blood pressure and other types of illnesses. Since they do not have any access to any government health facilities, they have to depend on private health services. These women are caught in a dilemma --- if they go to a government hospital they lose their day’s wages and if they visit a private person they have to pay exorbitant money. Hence it is essential that some medical insurance and facilities are provided for these workers. Further, most of these families live in slum dwellings or in rented houses. Very few of them have their own hutments. As far as government services are concerned, 175 women out of 288 had APL (above poverty line) ration cards and only eight women had BPL (below poverty line) ration cards. Two women had antodaya cards, while 103 women had no ration cards. This distribution of ration cards shows the fault of the entire system which is giving APL cards to families with an income of merely Rs 3,000 to 6,000 per month. Further, 65 percent of the widowed women got no widow pension; only two women from the entire sample were availing widow pension. After joining the JMS, 108 women are availing the Laxmibai pension scheme. Many of the women had no access to private toilets. In terms of food, their economic condition forced them to eat rice with water or watery dal. Many women report that they pick up the skin or the leftovers of the vegetables from their employers’ houses and get them home for cooking. Thus we see that the conditions under which domestic work is performed leads to penury and women lead a life without any basic facilities. THE DEMANDS AND RESOLUTIONS On the basis of this survey and the testimonies of women, a demands charter was passed with the following demands: 1) Recognition of domestic workers as workers and their registration so that they can get identity cards and such rights as all other workers have. 2) The constitution of an Domestic Workers Welfare Board under the Unorganised Sector Workers (Social Security Act) 2008 with all basic social security benefits such as PF, pension, maternity entitlements etc. 3) The formulation of a comprehensive Domestic Workers Act through parliament. 4) Ten percent of all welfare schemes should be allocated for unorganised sector workers. 5) Thirty days paid leave for all domestic workers. 6) If a worker who has worked for more than five years is removed from work, than she should get gratuity. 7) Domestic workers should be covered by the Minimum Wages Act. 8) BPL and RBSY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana) cards for all domestic workers. 9) Indira Awas Yojana and other welfare schemes must cover the domestic workers. 10) Area based public creches for all domestic workers. 11) Free medical treatment and extension of OPD hours to afternoon in government hospitals, as women generally go to work in the mornings. 12) Registration of all placement agencies and monitoring of their practices. Strict action should be taken against all illegal practices in which an agency is involved. The convention passed three resolutions in addition to this. These were on the need for recognising the rights of migrant domestic workers; the need for curbing child labour in domestic work; and the need for taking steps to address the problem of violence against domestic workers by their employers. In the end, the convention was addressed by Sehba Farooqui and Archana Prasad both of whom brought out the political and policy dimensions of the struggle of the domestic workers. Recognising that the formation of an association was a big step forward in the struggle, the domestic workers vowed to fight unitedly and intensify their struggles. The convention ended with this resolve and the slogans of ‘We Shall Fight, We Shall Win!”