Chennai: The truant maid and the missing cook are sure ways to upset the morning peace in most middle- and upper-class homes in India, where tasks such as doing the dishes, cleaning the floor, packing lunch and dropping the brat to school are usually left to the household help.
Listen to Reiko Tshushima, a gender specialist at ILO, talk about how India’s unorganized domestic sector could be organized
There are more than two million household helpers in India, according to a survey done in 2004-05 by the government’s National Sample Survey Organisation. That’s five times more the number at the turn of the century, making paid domestic work one of the fastest growing employment opportunities for urban women, according to the International Labour Organizaton (ILO), an arm of the United Nations (UN).
However, these two million women work without the protection offered to many other classes of labourers—minimum wages, weekly holidays and social security, for instance.
Self-help: Babli Rawat’s union for domestic workers in Mumbai helps them get among other things a renewable ration card for subsidized staples. Rawat (standing) is seeking free health check-ups for members. Ashesh Shah/Mint
That could change. Amid a gradual growth in unionization of household workers, ILO will kick off discussions this June in Geneva on the wages and welfare of domestic help. India is one of the 10 permanent members of the ILO governing council.
There are still a few niggling issues to be sorted out. ILO discussions have to have all stakeholders around the table—employers, employees and the government. It is not clear who will, and can, represent the urban householders who employ domestic help.
The implementation of minimum wages is another challenge, and the scepticism comes not just from employers, but also employees.
“When we talk about minimum wages, most of our members think it is ridiculous,” says Babli Rawat, general secretary of Mumbai-based union Domestic Workers’ Federation (DWF), speaking in Hindi. She believes it is near impossible to enforce such a rule, as an hourly pay could spur workers to work slowly for more remuneration.
“What we are demanding from the Maharashtra government is education scholarships, free health check-ups and pensions,” she says.
Last month, a representative from ILO and an academician from overseas (both didn’t want to be named) surveyed the workings of a pilot project backed by the UN group to organize domestic workers in Chennai.
In 2007, Tamil Nadu included household helpers in their unorganized workers group and even set up a domestic workers’ welfare board, but no money was allocated to it from the state budget.
At a dishevelled hall used for community weddings in a slum close to the beach in south Chennai, nearly 30 women sat down on the floor, intrigued by the foreigner who tried to gauge their status and the benefits they got via the All India Trade Union Congress, which has 2,500 Chennai domestic workers as members.
The women at the meeting claimed salaries were between Rs300-1,000 a month for household work, without any weekly off. Most of them borrow money to meet monthly expenses at as much as 60% rate of interest. They did a range of work in households, from cleaning to cooking, and were expecting the union will at least help them garner government support for their children’s education. Many of the women workers were sending their kids to English-medium schools as it improved future job prospects.
When asked by the surveyor about the likelihood that they could receive a minimum wage of Rs30 per hour if they demanded, most women laughed, saying that they were more likely to be replaced.
“In our minds, we look at the domestic worker as merely a help and not someone who is performing a key task,” says Nishtha Jain, maker of the documentary Lakshmi and Me where she chronicled the struggles of her maid in Mumbai, highlighting the need for unions. Although the 60-minute film won numerous awards overseas, it got a limited response in India. “The film was too close to home for most people, creating a discomfort.”
The Chennai union has tried unsuccessfully to talk to employers about workers’ rights through resident welfare associations.
Under such circumstances, even the ILO official visiting Chennai was unsure who would represent the employers at the June meeting in Geneva for a tripartite discussion involving the government and workers as well.
For 40-year-old widow Babita Sawant, who has been working as a helper in the western Mumbai suburb of Goregaon for the past six years, a job of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and utensils in a neighbouring household gets her a monthly salary of Rs2,500 or roughly Rs20 an hour for a four-hour workday. Sawant is quite sure that her employer won’t pay her a salary at the rate of Rs30 an hour, partly because they cannot afford to.
But she joined DWF, which has 55,000 members in Maharashtra, to get a permanent account number card, set up a bank account and also get a 11-month, renewable ration card to get subsidized rice, wheat and kerosene. She’s saved Rs1,500 over the past two years in her bank account. DWF’s Rawat is now rallying for free health check-ups for the union members.
Still, social security for workers seems a far cry. One of DWF’s recommendations to the state governments is to fund domestic workers’ welfare kitty by levying a tax, of say Re1 per sq. ft, on buildings being constructed as residents will end up employing household helpers anyway.
For the June meeting, India’s department of labour has been asking ILO to merely chalk out a recommendation, which is optional, for domestic workers’ welfare, wages and rights, and not a convention that will have to adopted as a law by member countries.
“One of the key reasons the government doesn’t want to take a stance on the rights of domestic workers is that any legislation to protect their rights will turn homes from a private space into a workplace and, then again, enforcement is a problem,” says N. Neetha, a senior fellow with New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
Still, ILO’s gender specialist Reiko Tshushima believes that there are tools to get households to adhere to minimum wages for domestic workers as is seen in measures taken by Austria.
The European nation introduced a households services cheque five years ago, to pay for childcare and domestic workers. The idea was to ensure fair wages as employers pay domestic workers with these cheques, which include an hourly wage as well as a social insurance component. The cheques can be bought at widespread retail locations such as post offices.
“Nobody wants to be a bad employer, says Tshushima. “But when the money has to come out of your own pocket, you tend to be stingy.”