Workers in the shadows

June 16th is designated as International Domestic Workers Day. While they play a vital role in most middle and upper class families, most domestic help continue to work on the fringes of society.


Caregivers, housekeepers, maids, nannies, cooks or domestic help – call them by any name, domestic workers in the country are still in the fringes. Why, one may ask? The phrase ‘domestic work’ conjures images of household work associated domesticity – the one of cleaning and caring, and hence relationships that exist within this frame remain in the shadows. There has always been a gendered stigma attached to domestic work especially in India, and the work is always viewed through the lens of power and authority, submission and suppression

Of memsahib, her maid and India’s colonial past

“This can be traced back to colonial India”, says Geeta Menon, Secretary Stree Jagruthi Samithi. Domestic workers formed an indispensible part for most British families in India and it was common for most of them to have large staff of domestic workers.  The relationship was that of a master-servant and it was quite common for hostile criticisms of household helps, to pave way for public conversations, thus shaping popular discourse on domestic workers.  From being branded unclean, dishonest to untrustworthy and lazy, the adjectives have stood the test of time.

Domestic workers continue to be the silent backbone of the middle and upper class, in present India, yet ‘domestic work’, is not seen as ‘productive’ and is rarely seen as a world of toil, harassment and drudgery. The equation between the employer and employee is also arbitrary and individual, in the privacy of households.

Acidity and heart burn

“Most employers want us to come early in the morning. We have a family, we have to first finish our household chores, and send our kids off, before going to the employers place. Given that we have to report by 7 am or so, we mostly don’t eat and by the time we finish, we are starving. Many a times the employers don’t offer us food too, and sometimes unable to bear, we request for coffee or tea and it is much diluted. At times when left-over food from the previous day is heated up in the microwave and offered to us, we cannot do anything but thank them. This is not to generalise or categorise all employers as bad, but this happens in a majority of cases. I know of employers, who first serve the help and then eat, or invite the help to eat together. In my case, I started packing my own box and started eating. My employers were shocked, and feeling guilty, told me not to bring food, and that they would offer,” says Chitra, a domestic worker of 15 years.

Caste, toilets, separate lifts and dignity

“Caste plays an import role in the mindset of people, and denying one the right to use the toilet, adds to the indignity of the work”, says Geeta Menon. The story of Pushpa, is a classic case. A domestic worker for 20 years, and a resident of Ragiguda, she is always denied the use of toilets, at a house, belonging to the upper caste. “I report to work early in the mornings and it takes almost two hours to complete my work. Once I had to pee very badly, and unable to control, I requested my owners. They refused to let me use the toilet. Till date, they have refused to let me use the toilet. When I wash clothes or vessels, they will rinse it again and use it. What is my crime? Is it just that I belong to a low social hierarchy”.

Most apartments in the city also have a separate lift for domestic workers. “I feel hurt that dogs and people like us have a separate lift. Why is there a need for segregation”, questions Pushpa.

Lies, stories, leaves and crèches

“They take too many holidays, disrupting our schedule, and when questioned, will weave different stories”, says Aarti (name changed), an IT professional. With the growing middle class working women, the dependency on domestic workers for household chores is high. However, what escapes the obvious is that women in the informal economy also face similar problems, that of nuclear families, or single women having to raise children. With lack of state support for facilities such as crèches, day care, or anganwadis, most women are forced to apply for leave.

Kaliamma, 50, had to take her children to work wherever she went. Pic: Yogaraj S Mudalgi

Geeta Menon, brings in the gender dimension, saying that it is strange for a woman not to understand another woman. She does not mean to brand all women with little or no understanding of their domestic workers. As Meetali Mukherjee, a business-woman says “These delinquencies must be examined differently. Being judgmental is not the solution. There are days when I am mad that Sunitha hasn’t turned up, but looking at the situation, I realise that for single woman, taking care of two children and an aging mother is not easy.  I only wish that she calls and informs, but again there are problems, that of currency or phone being dropped somewhere”.  She further goes on to add, “Domestic workers enter our personal domains – our homes, our families and get glimpses of our intimate lives. Therefore, the conventional HR rules do not apply. We often develop bonds with them and feel hurt when there is a spat or they leave. We do want to understand their problems and vice versa. The fact that most of our domestic workers are women helps us empathise with their domestic problems.”

Gender, old age and insecurity

Old age significantly increases vulnerability for domestic workers. This significantly decreases earning power and levels of economic activity; this coupled with limited or no savings, lack of family support networks, increasing health issues, adds to the insecurity.  As Pankajamma shares, “My husband left me early on. I worked as a domestic worker and raised my two daughters. While I am proud that I got them married and settled, I am left with no savings. I put everything for the family. I am old and live alone; I cannot walk or sit for long. People look at me, and think twice before giving me a job. Some people who offer me a job out of sympathy get irritated with my inability to complete tasks quickly. If I fall sick, I have to go to the hospital, and I easily spend up to Rs 500. For all my 35 years of service, shouldn’t I be eligible for pension scheme?”

Visibility and voice

A domestic workers protest in progress.Pic: Navya P K

The Domestic Workers Rights Union, evolved in response to the needs and priorities of the working condition of these invisible workers and in order to break the culture of silence. In 2010, for the first time, a domestic workers’ public hearing was organised in Bangalore which sought to visibilise voices. In 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Decent Work recognised Domestic Work and passed a resolution that national governments need to ratify.

The Domestic Workers Convention (C 189) requires governments to provide domestic workers with the same basic labour rights, as those available to other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, social security, and clear information on the terms and conditions of employment, to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, to regulate private employment agencies that recruit and employ domestic workers, and to prevent child labour in domestic work.

Image source: Pinky Chandran

While there is no comprehensive survey of domestic workers in the city, it is estimated that more than 10% of the population is engaged in domestic work.  The need of the hour is to ratify the convention, and register domestic workers with the Labour Department, to legitimise the employer-employee relationship.

For more on the story: Tune in to Radio Active 90.4 MHz on June 16th 2015 between 9 am and 10 am. Repeat broadcast from 5 pm to 6 pm.

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