On Domestic Workers Day, millions of indian women continue to work in the shadows

“Dogs and Indians not allowed,” proclaimed a notorious 1930s signboard at the Pahartali European Club in the Chittagong region of India (now in Bangladesh), when the country was under British rule. Today, in the 21st century, in recreational and residential spaces throughout Indian cities, there’s an invisible sign which says: “No domestic workers allowed”.


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On Domestic Workers Day, millions of Indian women continue to work in the shadows | Equal Times


Saroja, who works for five different households in Bangalore knows all about this unspoken rule.

“The residents take their dogs downstairs through lift. Their dogs walk in the garden, but we [domestic workers] are shooed away by the security guards”.

Nagamma, a 63-year-old asthma sufferer who used to work as a domestic help tells Equal Times:

“I had to climb to a seventh floor apartment because I wasn’t allowed to take the lift. Eighty-four steps at a go! I had to quit.”

Domestic Workers of the Gharelu Mahila Kamgar Union, Kanpur,
Uttar Pradesh, air their grievances during one of their monthly meetings.(Sindhu Menon)

Hundreds of thousands of them endure untold suffering because of their perceived subordination due to caste, class and simply because of what they do for a living.

Abuses range from un- to underpaid wages to forced labour, physical violence, starvation and even death.

To coincide with International Domestic Workers’ Day on 16 June 2015, the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) are teaming up with various national trade union centres in India to hold a two-day strategic meeting about how to better organise domestic workers, and how to ensure India’s ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on the Rights of Domestic Workers.

Domestic workers perform a vital role in India’s so-called “tiger economy”.

By outsourcing their household chores, the minority of educated housewives from the middle- and lower-middle classes are able to enter the labour market and climb the career ladder.

But India’s domestic workers seldom have such opportunities.

Statistics reveals that 73 per cent of working women in India are illiterate or educated only up to primary level.

In such a context, domestic work is one of the few areas of work available for the majority of unskilled women workers.

They frequently work seven days a week, enduring poverty wages [despite often working in multiple households], no paid leave, zero maternity or social protection, violence and unhygienic living and working conditions.

“We are not given off days and when we fall sick or take leave, our wages are deducted for that day. When we return the amount of work is double, but the employers don’t take that into account,”

says Rajkumari, a domestic worker from the city of Kanpur (population 2.5 million) in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

“Despite the fact that there is an increase in the number of domestic workers, the trade is still unregulated,”

says Manali Shah, the national secretary of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

“Domestic workers work in isolation from other workers because the place of work is a private household. Due to this complexity they are never capable of individual and collective bargaining,”

she adds.

But in spite of these challenges, Indian trade unions are currently working with domestic workers in 13 Indian states.

And the government of India has a number of other steps to promote decent work for domestic workers.

Thanks to initiatives from the Ministry of Labour and Employment, seven states have fixed minimum wages for domestic workers and ten states have established Welfare Boards registering the placement agencies which recruit domestic workers.

But put in a global context, India needs to do better. So far, 21 countries have ratified Convention 189 on domestic work, but India is yet to act.

Source: Sindhu Menon/Equal Times

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