Vol. XLIII No. 14 April 07, 2019

Striving for Dignity

Archana Prasad

“HUM bhi insaan hain, hamein insaan kyun nahi samajhte (We are also human beings, why are we not treated like humans?) -Shiela, a live-out domestic worker from Shaheed Camp in Dakshinpuri, South Delhi. This sentiment represents the plight of the 350 representatives of live-out domestic workers who attended a live-out domestic workers convention of the Delhi unit of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) on September 9, 2014 at the Constitution Club. The convention was the culmination of a six month long survey undertaken by the Delhi AIDWA in order to formulate a demand charter and start the initial processes for organising live-out domestic women workers of Delhi. The convention noted that live-out domestic workers were subjected not only to economic exploitation, but also social discrimination. This message was conveyed by all delegates and emphasised by the representatives of different mass organisations and institutions greeting and speaking at the convention. Apart from the office bearers of the Delhi AIDWA, Brinda Karat (Polit Bureau member and vice president, AIDWA), Jagmati Sangwan (general secretary, AIDWA), Suneetha Eluri (International Labour Organisation), Kamla (Delhi CITU) and Ranjana Narula (treasurer, CITU) expressed their solidarity with continuing struggle of these workers for a dignified life. Brinda Karat released the survey report ‘Striving For Dignity’ and 15 domestic workers representing different areas of Delhi shared their experiences. DISTRESS EMPLOYMENT STRUCTURES In the survey report it has been noted that about 75 percent of the live-out domestic workers belong to economically and socially deprived sections, mainly the dalits, adivasis and OBCs and minorities. One fourth of the sample also belongs to economically backward ‘other castes’. What is common amongst all these workers is their poor living conditions and the urgent need to earn money. About 80 percent of the 1200 people surveyed had started working only within the last two decades. As Saraswati from Kusumpur Pahadi says, “We have to work because of our helplessness. Earlier there were lots of jobs and fewer people to do domestic work. But now there are many domestic workers in the market but little work. That is why we are forced to work for low wages”. Depressed wages and unfair practices in payment of wages are structured by this distress factor which is essential to explaining the need for women to work at any cost. As Rekha from Mangolpuri states, “There is no rule and regulation in the manner in which we are paid our wages. If we take one holiday, the lady employing us cuts pay for three days instead of one. If we do extra work, we are not paid overtime as our employers state that we have taken too many leaves. This month I was paid my monthly wage after one week and that too Rs 900 less on the pretext of taking leave. What should we do? We have to work otherwise who would accept this situation”. Sunita from VP House has the same story to tell. She says that her employer cut her wages by telling lies about how many holidays she had taken. When she protested, she lost her job. It is therefore clear that most women are forced to put up with the harassment of their employers because they needed work. INVISIBILITY OF WORK The question of wages and wage setting came up for discussion in the convention, especially in the speech of Brinda Karat. She stressed the need for fighting for the recognition of domestic workers as ‘workers’ as this would facilitate their access to basic services and minimum wages. She also stressed on the need to recognise ‘home’ as a legitimate place of work as it would enable women to come under the purview of other labour laws. Further there was a need to emphasise the need for determining the minimum standards for wage determination of domestic workers. This should also be accompanied by the demand for ‘bonus’ ‘overtime’ and other benefits, The need for these demands was articulated by Brinda Karat in response to the evidence and testimonies of the domestic workers themselves. As Jamna from Sultanpuri states “ I have been working for 30 years. I have spent my life in this job, but neither my wages have gone up nor have I got any increment.’ In another instance, Rajeshwari from Sonia Vihar stated that she only got a salary raise of only Rs 100 in three years. Others like Vandana Mandal from Rohini explained that they were only getting Rs 500-1000 per house when they worked in multiple houses. Guddi from Mukundpur stated that she was given less money for more work. These experiences also confirmed conclusions of the survey report which showed that the mean wage of the domestic worker in Delhi was at least 30-60 percent lower than the designated legal minimum wage for persons in the unorganised sector. In the light of these instances, Brinda Karat once again emphasised the nature of class differentiation between the employers and the domestic workers to stress the need for organising these workers and campaigning for their recognition. SOCIAL DISCRIMINATION AND DOMESTIC WORK The convention focused on conditions of work of women domestic workers in the houses of their employers. The two stark forms of this discrimination are forms of verbal abuse and lack of basic facilities like water and bathrooms at the workplace. The survey report shows that more than half the women workers are not allowed to use the bathrooms at their place of work. This was borne out by the women who spoke at the convention. For example Gita from Kabir Nagar states that her employer considers her untouchable and does not even allow her to touch the sofa in the house even though she is responsible for the cleanliness in the house. Several women reported that they are not allowed to use the bathroom and find it difficult to manage since they leave their houses at five in the morning. Kamlesh from South Delhi also narrated how her employer refuses to give her money in her own hand because the employer does not want to even touch her. Though the survey report had not recorded any instances of harassment or physical violence, some instances were reported in the convention. For instance a domestic worker from Mangolpuri repeatedly stated that her employer made obscene gestures at her. In another instance the worker was beaten up at an ordinary pretext by Jat employers and their neighbours. These instances highlighted that it is essential to recognise home as workplace so that labour and other relevant laws can be used by the domestic worker for her safety. NEED FOR REGULATION Interventions by Brinda Karat and the ILO representative highlighted the need to intensify the struggle for a comprehensive law and policy for the rights of the domestic worker. In the light of this, the resolution passed by the convention made the following demands: • Recognition and registration of domestic workers as ‘workers’ • recognition of ‘home’ as a place of work • minimum wages for domestic work should be specified on a per hour and per job basis by the government. Minimum wages should be increased in accordance with inflation rate and bonus should be given every year • all domestic workers should be covered under the Antodaya and RSBY scheme. They should also get the benefit of Indira Awas Yojana and other schemes • there should be a common weekly holiday for all domestic workers • Domestic Workers Welfare Board should be constituted to ensure maternity, child care, pension and provident fund benefits for domestic workers • employers should also be registered and their behaviour towards the workers should be monitored. • there should be registration and monitoring of placement agencies. • there should be registration of all migrant workers and their rights should be secured. The convention ended with a pledge to strengthen the unity and organise domestic workers on the basis of these demands. The domestic workers pledged to fight for their economic security and their dignity. As a worker said “This fight is for my self esteem and not only for my job”.