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New Delhi: The Karkardooma slum is hidden in plain sight. Tucked behind a billboard, makeshift houses of cinder blocks and corrugated steel crowd narrow lanes, just a short walk from the manicured gardens and three-storey bungalows of Anand Vihar, in the eastern part of Delhi. Small children play marbles under the watchful eye of the neighbours. Shobha Kumari, a resident of the slum, wakes up every day at 5.30 in the morning, cooks for her four children and husband and then leaves for work—she is a part-time help.

Her actual home is Madhya Pradesh. The family moved to Delhi many years ago, like other families in similar circumstances, to look for a better existence. Unlike in the village, there are jobs aplenty for women like Kumari in the city, albeit poorly paid and with no security. By working at several homes in the neighbourhood and charging 200 per month for each of the services rendered—sweeping and washing dishes, for instance—these women have managed to survive outside of the network of placement agencies. In many instances, they are slowly replacing their husbands as primary bread earners.

Helping hand: Jyoti, a grass-roots organizer of the Self Employed Women’s Association, tells a part-time domestic worker about her rights.Photographs by Ankit Agrawal/Mint

The new bread earners

Although working part-time affords Kumari a certain degree of independence, her schedule is still largely dictated by her employers. There is no question of missing a day of work if she becomes sick. “If you miss more than three days of work, they replace you," she says.

Part-time workers in Delhi are increasingly in demand, according to Bina Agarwal, director and professor of economics at the Institute of Economic Growth. “Earlier you only had live-in domestic help, but now families are more nuclear, space is constrained, it’s a much more fluid market," she says.

Still, while multiple part-time jobs offer the chance of higher wages, they come with job insecurity.

A yet-to-be-published study by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST), a non-governmental organization (NGO), of 1,438 domestic workers living in the poorest areas of Delhi, has found that lack of job security is only the first challenge. Low-caste workers can be prohibited from using their employer’s toilets or drinking their water, notes Shrayana Bhattacharya, the author of the study. This results in a high level of urinary infections among women.

Workers sit outside a house in the Karkardooma slum

Part of the problem is that most domestic workers—unless they’ve had formal instruction from NGOs or others—don’t have any real understanding of their rights, according to Surabhi Mehrotra of Jagori, an NGO that works with domestic workers.

“Most don’t think of this as a form of work. They see it as an extension of something they do at home," she says. “Before they can negotiate for their rights, they need to see themselves as workers."

There is also the risk of jeopardizing the job. Kumari, who has two boys and two girls, says the 2,500 she earns each month is the most secure source of income for the family. Although her husband, a cement pourer, earns more when he works, his income is project-based and uncertain. This is common to many poor families.

Of the husbands of domestic workers, surveyed by ISST in 117 slums in and around Delhi, one-third were casual labourers and the rest, either unemployed or in low-paying jobs as rickshaw pullers, cleaners and waste pickers. At the subsistence level, these women are a critical source of family income.

There’s some evidence to show that as women earn more, their husbands feel emasculated—particularly if they are unemployed. There are also instances of some of the women, encouraged and emboldened by their own abilities, aspiring for more.

An exception

Radha Devi Verma sits shyly at the table at the house of one of her clients, beaming with quiet pride as she recounts her accomplishments.

Since migrating to Delhi 15 years ago from Uttar Pradesh to get a job, first as a part-time domestic worker and eventually a masseur, she’s been able to fund an expensive surgery that may have saved her husband’s life, paid for her mother-in-law’s eye surgery, built a home in her village, and, though illiterate herself, put her four children, two boys and two girls, through school, married her eldest daughter off to a teacher, even presented her son-in-law with a motorcycle. Later this year, she plans to fund a religious festival in her home village.

Her husband has taken on household duties, including cooking, cleaning and childcare, she says, and is delighted that she is able to contribute so much to the family.

Verma’s accomplishments represent an optimistic trajectory for women working as part-time maids and cleaners. The move to the city allowed her to break free of caste-restrictions and acquire new skills that would have been prohibited in the village. Eventually, while working as a cleaner at a beauty parlour, she learnt how to give head and body massages—a profession looked down upon in her village—and built up her own clientele. Her salary went from about 1,000 per month (as a domestic worker) to nearly 15,000 per month.

Still, Verma is mindful of the caste hierarchy, and is meticulously careful that word of her profession does not get back to her people.

In an ideal world, according to Reiko Tsushima, specialist on gender equality at the International Labour Organization, part-time domestic workers would all end up like Verma, starting with relatively unskilled labour, like mopping and sweeping, and eventually leading to more skilled professions—cooking, caring for children or the elderly, or like Verma, becoming beauticians. However, this is more the exception than the rule.

According to Sanjay Kumar, regional director of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Verma’s experience is quite exceptional. “There might be one woman in 100 like that," he says. “Maybe two in 500. Without a catalyst, it’s unlikely."

In an attempt to provide such a trigger, SEWA has been working in the slums of Delhi, Kerala and Gujarat, informing domestic workers of their rights, helping them to form unions; it will also, eventually, provide vocational courses.

Ranjana Kumari, president of Centre for Social Research, suggests that such unions help increase the opportunities available to part-time workers.

SEWA has successfully unionized at least 400 domestic workers in Kerala. Almost immediately, Kumar says, the women in the union were able to raise their wages by around 40%. They also learnt how to negotiate with their employers.

Today, most women have at least four days’ holiday per month. If they work for more than 3 hours, they are able to have tea or water breaks. Women who are sick can ask another member of the group to go work for them, so they will not lose their jobs. “When they organize themselves, they have a platform to talk about their rights," Kumar says. “Organizing is key to all of the rights they hope to access."

While the challenges of their work space are daunting, it is evident that their new-found social and economic empowerment is triggering aspirations among some or at least ensure it for the next generation. Shobha Kumari’s dream is that her daughters will be “educated", meaning literate (Kumari is not), and capable of making a living independently as skilled workers.

The ISST survey found that although three out of four women surveyed in Delhi said they were happy doing domestic work, almost an equal proportion said they wouldn’t want the same future for their daughters. “I do not want them to do what I do," agrees Kumari. “It is not good work."

This is the second of a three-part series on the plight of women workers in India.

Next: Women left behind by migrant husbands face new challenges in rural India.

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