ITUC OnLine – April 2, 2007

“We give dignity to domestic workers”

Brussels, 2 April 2007 (ITUC Online): The Domestic Workers’ Movement (DWM) has over two million members in India, of which 95% are women. By fighting for the recognition of domestic workers and improved working conditions, it gives dignity to an occupation that is usually confined to the informal economy. The DWM also campaigns against the use of child labour in domestic services.

What are the main issues facing domestic workers in India?

Teresa Joseph: The lack of regulation. A bill has been presented on the informal economy, which, following relentless lobbying, finally included domestic workers, but it hasn’t been passed yet. This lack of regulation has led to countless violations of domestic workers’ rights, including working hours ranging between 8 and 18 hours and the absence of any job security. More often than not, the workload depends solely on the goodwill of the employers.

Anjali Shukla: Although there isn’t a national law dealing with this issue in India, such legislation does exist in certain States. The States of Kerala and Karnataka have, for example, adopted minimum wage laws for domestic workers. The legislation of Tamil Nadu recognizes the status of informal economy workers and is the first State in India to give informal economy workers the right to form trade unions. There are also social security schemes for domestic workers in certain States, such as Maharashtra and Karnataka. These States have taken such steps as a result of our movement’s lobbying and campaigns.

Do your members live in their employers’ home or elsewhere?

Anjali Shukla: We have observed two different scenarios that lead to different problems. Female domestic workers who live in their employer’s home are generally more vulnerable to sexual and verbal abuse, and are often refused days off. Domestic workers who live with their own families and only spend a few hours working for an employer are less likely to come across such problems, but they have to cope with the added task of looking after their own families and finding childcare solutions. They are not always able to send their children to school, which means these children also risk becoming domestic workers.

What services do you offer domestic workers to draw them to your organisation?

Anjali Shukla: We offer them a sense of security. We provide them with advice and support when they are negotiating with their employers regarding wages, paid leave (annual and weekly), etc… We also provide them with medical assistance and may, in cases of extreme hardship, provide some financial help with their children’s education.

Domestic labour is characterised by a large number of employers, who are almost as numerous as the workers. How do you reach out to them all?

Teresa Joseph: We run many information campaigns in the mass media regarding our movement and the basic rights of domestic workers. We also provide information to our members upon enrolment. As soon as ten domestic workers have been affiliated in one place, we set up a self-help group so that if anything happens to one of them, the others immediately notify us, or they attempt to solve the problem themselves.

In some regions, we run training sessions on Sundays, teaching them how to bargain for their rights. We don’t always approach the employers.

Sometimes it is the employers themselves who come to us to find out about the employment conditions they should offer their domestic staff.

Anjali Shukla: We also try to press employers to sign bona fide employment contracts with their employees. Although there is no law on the matter, we draw up model contracts, which may, for instance, stipulate that in case of a health problem, the employer must share half of the cost with the employee. In cases where the workers are really too poor, our movement can offer to cover their half of the medical fees. In cases of very serious abuses, we undertake rescue operations in collaboration with the authorities.

Is indentured labour sometimes used in domestic services?

Teresa Joseph: Yes. In November 2006, such a case was uncovered in North-East India. It involved a female domestic worker who had borrowed money from her employer and was unable to repay her debt in time. Her employer coerced her into “giving” him her daughter to work in his house for two years. The girl was only eleven and was forced to work for two years without being paid! The employer was a very powerful man and had threatened to start legal proceedings against the woman unless she agreed to work for one month without pay. We had to intervene to free her.

How do you finance these activities?

Anjali Shukla: Part of our members’ affiliation fees goes towards funding general training activities or medical care for our poorest members. We also receive donations, for setting up an emergency fund for medical care, for example. Self-reliance is among the greatest challenges faced by our movement, an issue that we haven’t been able to resolve yet, not to mention the fact that the people we provide assistance to are not all members. Although we provide support to child domestic servants, for example, we do not register them as members until they turn eighteen.

Do you see yourselves as a union or an NGO?

Anjali Shukla: An NGO. Given that domestic workers are not recognised as employees everywhere in India, it is extremely difficult to organise them into a union. Furthermore, many domestic workers are reluctant to form a union, for fear that their employer might dismiss them as a result.

Teresa Joseph: There is a constant climate of insecurity. When we asked them to take responsibility for the movement by themselves, they feared we were inciting them to stand up against their employers. There’s still a long way to go before we can unionise them.

Are migrants coming to India to seek employment in domestic services?

Teresa Joseph: There are a lot of migrants in North-East India. They come mainly from Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma. Indian law prohibits us from acting on their behalf, so we limit ourselves to associating them with our activities. Employers are keen to employ migrants as they ask for even lower wages than the Indians. In some cases, Bangladeshi women gladly accept work for 100 rupees (1.7 Euros) a month, provided it includes lodging and board, whereas Indian women usually ask for at least 1000 rupees a month.

Anjali Shukla: The situation of foreign migrants is even worse than that of domestic migrants as they are generally undocumented and, even when they’re not, they are regularly harassed by the police and the authorities.

Could you tell us about some major victories of your movement?

Teresa Joseph: I am very proud of the increased bargaining power our members have gained. What’s more, the enrolment process strengthens their sense of dignity by providing them with a membership card with their name, their registration number, etc.. This is even more important for migrant workers. Thanks to this document, not only do they feel more closely affiliated to our movement but they also feel a greater sense of personal worth as workers, as domestic staff. They appreciate being called “domestic workers”, and having a role in society. We observe a real change in their outlook on life, they start to dress smarter as their self-esteem grows. By drilling it into them, we make them understand that there is no shame in working as a domestic for a family; quite the contrary: we help them realize how much they are contributing to the welfare of society by taking care of children and elderly people.

We explain that it is a genuine occupation and that it helps them to become better citizens.

Anjali Shukla: One of our main victories is the fact that domestic work is now recognised, as is the need to improve the situation of domestic workers in India. This had never been the case in the past. The use of child labour in domestic services is now also seen as a problem.

How do children end up being exploited as domestic servants?

Anjali Shukla: These children are “neither seen nor heard”. No one notices them: they live inside the employer’s residence, and some of them never even set foot outside. When they do get to leave the house, it is to do a chore, and they have to return home quickly. No one notices them. These children are not taken into account even when a population census is taken and a government employee visits the household. They don’t go to school, they don’t have friends, and don’t have any contact with their families. From time to time, campaigns are organised aimed at registering child servants with the local authorities, but they have never produced significant results. The authorities do not feel too concerned. India’s laws are rarely enforced.

Teresa Joseph: It is also a societal problem: when an employer locks up a child servant, the neighbours, the community, should report it, or try to enquire about the situation. But going into a house, asking whether the child belongs to the family or is a servant, seems like a strange thing to do, and nobody does it. Employers also have a tendency to delude themselves. They think that by employing a child servant, they are helping the child’s impoverished relatives, and that these children have something to eat at least. There is a tendency in India to see it as a form of charity, especially given that the children’s families often say that it is “one less mouth to feed”. In most cases, Indians seem to be oblivious to the fact that this may lead to a society where children are trapped in a spiral of servitude, which affects society as a whole.

Is child labour in domestic services recognised as a problem to be fought?

Teresa Joseph: Yes, it is. Following relentless campaigning, in October 2006, the government adopted a bill that bans the use of child labour in domestic services. It remains to be seen whether it will be enforced…

It was a tragic event that contributed to the passing of this law that we had been fighting for since 1990. A 13-year-old girl servant in Mumbai was found hung to death last year. Another young girl servant who found the dead child got in touch with our movement. The employer claimed the child had committed suicide, but the way the body was found does not show any evidence of this. It would appear, rather, that the employer himself hung her. In spite of her lack of education, the child who found the corpse got in touch with other child servants. By around 9 am, 500 domestic workers had gathered to protest in front of the gates of the house where the girl had been found dead. By the evening, there were 5000. The police went in, as well a television crew. The journalists asked whether the responsibility for such a situation lay with society as a whole or with the individual. There was a tendency to call into question the responsibility of society and to hold the elected representatives accountable, which is why the bill was adopted.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau