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India: Domestic workers in Madurai doing a thankless job

India: Domestic workers in Madurai doing a thankless job

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by IDWFED published Aug 08, 2013 12:00 AM
Domestic workers slog it out in households every day in return for little respect. Despite performing an essential service in households, the domestic help is treated with very little respect. Fifty nine-year-old M. Prema has served as a domestic help for three decades in Madurai. From a person who was even shy to tell others her profession, Mrs. Prema has transformed into the leader of the Domestic Helpers Union here. According to Mrs. Prema, domestic workers have no fixed wages, fixed working hours or weekly offs and have very little time to spend with their families. They are the prime suspects when valuables go missing from the houses of their employers. They are subjected to sexual harassment at work and are discriminated against by caste. Their hard work is seldom recognised, she says.

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Domestic workers slog it out in households every day in return for little respect.  Despite performing an essential service in households, the domestic help is treated with very little respect.

Fifty nine-year-old M. Prema has served as a domestic help for three decades in Madurai. From a person who was even shy to tell others her profession, Mrs. Prema has transformed into the leader of the Domestic Helpers Union here.  According to Mrs. Prema, domestic workers have no fixed wages, fixed working hours or weekly offs and have very little time to spend with their families. They are the prime suspects when valuables go missing from the houses of their employers. They are subjected to sexual harassment at work and are discriminated against by caste. Their hard work is seldom recognised, she says.

“I am nearing 60, but I still work in three houses. My work helped me to educate my son, who is a teacher now,” Mrs. Prema says with noticeable pride.

However, being a domestic help left her with little time for her family.

“My husband did not lend much support to run my family. I was forced to work as a domestic help,” she says. Mrs. Prema claims that domestic helps were subjected to sexual harassment in workplaces. “I started working as a domestic help soon after my marriage. The male employers in the houses I worked behaved inappropriately even when their wives were in the next room. I was afraid to tell my husband then because he would not permit me to work,” recalls Mrs. Prema.

In most cases, the women are forced to take up the profession of domestic helps because of poverty, she adds.

“In a few cases, domestic helps are apprehensive about telling their employers the sexual harassment they are subjected to because the women in the households will only want to defend their family members”, she adds.

According to A. Nirmala, co-ordinator of Vaigai Vattara Pothu Thozhilalar Sangam, an organisation that works for the welfare of domestic workers and employees from other unorganised sectors, mostly women enter the profession. Most households prefer women, she says.  Nirmala estimates there are around 10,000 domestic workers in Madurai city. Of these, around 1,000 have registered themselves in the three associations for domestic workers in Madurai.

S. Ambiga, secretary of the Domestic Helpers Union, claims that Madurai has a large number of households that prefer having children as domestic workers.

On the issue of caste discrimination, Mrs. Ambiga says, “A few households do not permit us to enter their houses because of our caste. They ask us to wash their clothes and the vessels in the backyard.”

Some employers provide left-over food that is three days old, she added.

“The employers leave the non-vegetarian food we cook for them on Sunday in their refrigerators. They give it to us after keeping the food in the refrigerators for three days. Poverty stricken domestic workers give the left-over food to their children, but most of us throw it in the garbage bin, sometimes in front of our employers,” says L. Stella Rani, a domestic help.

Prema says there were occasions when the employers misplaced their jewellery and suspected the domestic help.

“Around a year ago, an employer accused a domestic help, who was a widow, of stealing her gold chain. Later, it transpired that the employer had misplaced the chain in her house. She suspected the domestic help and her children as well. The employer apologised and that was the end of the issue,” she says.

Domestic workers say their employers buy mobile phones for them and then deduct the cost from their salary every month.

“We have to stand by for calls from our employers. They get angry if our mobile phones are switched off even on rare occasions”, says Stella.

She claims that employers even accuse the domestic help of stealing their mobile phones.

“One of my employers had engaged a domestic help before me. The help worked there for three days and then she was dismissed without any notice and not paid for the days she worked there. The employer claimed that the help stole a mobile phone which the help denied,” Mrs. Stella added.

P. Clara, an advisor to the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Union, says it was a struggle to include domestic workers in the Tamil Nadu Manual Workers Act. There is no umbrella organisation in Tamil Nadu to fight for the rights of domestic workers, but a series of protests and campaigns are being conducted in the State by means of networking between different organisations from each district, she adds.

“States like Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala and Bihar have brought the domestic workers under the ambit of the Minimum Wages Act of 1948, but despite our long standing demand it is not implemented in Tamil Nadu,” Clara laments.

Nirmala says that most households in Madurai do not follow the ruling of the Supreme Court, which says that a domestic worker should be given a minimum wage of Rs 30 per hour.

Salai Selvam, a co-ordinator of Koodu Women’s Readers Club, which supports the domestic workers associations, says that the work of the domestic help is seldom valued.

“In most cases it is difficult to convince the employers that domestic workers have their rights. The domestic workers are denied medical benefits. A doctor, who administered drip to his domestic help, deducted Rs. 250 from her salary of Rs. 500.”

Photo: R. Ashok/THE HINDU

Source: M. Vandhana/The Hindu

Story Type: Story

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