Home >Lounge >Features >What domestic workers want you to know in this festive season
A protest in the Capital last year seeking a Central law for domestic workers (HT file)
A protest in the Capital last year seeking a Central law for domestic workers (HT file)

What domestic workers want you to know in this festive season

  • Employers think of their festive largesse more in terms of a baksheesh, or tip, rather than a rightful bonus
  • If your employer doesn’t recognize you as a worker, it follows that they don’t need to consider your rights as a worker

It’s that time of year—the hectic run-up to Diwali—when Sunita Rane feels agitated. It’s understandable if you know that Rane is an office-bearer of the Delhi-based National Domestic Workers Union, which counts 5,000 domestic workers as its members. She is privy to stories about our worst behaviour. “Many employers distribute their leftover Diwali sweets to their domestic workers after a week, you know. We don’t want your jhoota mithai," she says.

“We deep-clean your homes before the festival and don’t clean ours because we have no time or energy left over. We leave our families and come to your homes on Diwali day and work when you host your parties and then you give us a hundred rupees for a job well done? Only 1% of employers give us new clothes at this time of year. The rest just give us their old clothes."

Adds Renuka, 32, a domestic worker who works in three homes in Mangaluru: “I don’t get a holiday on Sunday. My pay is cut if I take a day off. One of my madams especially keeps calling me on my cellphone, pleading with me to come to work even on days when I am sick at home."

During the festive season—which spans from Durga Puja to Christmas and even includes Eid, though it’s not adjacent on the calendar—domestic workers have one important message to communicate to those who employ them: They want their rights, not your charity. As Rane puts it, “We want an annual bonus, not your stale sweets."

She lists other basic rights that many domestic workers don’t get: “Holidays, pension, minimum wage, a notice period before termination, pregnancy leave and dignity of labour. We work from morning to night but you don’t let us go to the toilet in your homes. Many of you don’t even give us a cup of tea."

We are meeting at Bengaluru’s Freedom Park—once the city’s Central Jail—to celebrate 10 years of the Domestic Workers’ Rights Union, supported by Stree Jagruti Samiti. We have just been introduced by its co-founder Geeta Menon, who is rushing around the ground, supervising the hanging of colourful handloom saris from vantage points before the celebrations begin. She’s trying to ignore the fact that the ground has been double-booked by a Kannada film crew.

Menon’s Stree Jagruti Samiti has led the way in demanding dignity and benefits for this largely female workforce (domestic workers or DWs, not servants or maids) since 1988. It also rescues and rehabilitates minors who find themselves trapped/trafficked in this profession.

The demand for an annual bonus has been playing out for the last five-six years in Karnataka, she says, as we sit on the grass to chat. “The first year, DWs just went to work wearing a black ribbon during the festive season. We decided we wouldn’t be antagonistic. If an employer asked what the ribbon signified, we communicated our demand," she says. The response was predictably mixed.

In year 2, DWs were handed a pamphlet that explained the issue. They were told to slide it under the door or hand it to their employers and discuss it only if the latter asked any questions. The idea was simple, Menon says. “We don’t want a sari or sweets. We don’t want a favour, we want our right."

By the third year, many employers had started giving a cash bonus. “Now a lot of people have started giving additional money during this time of the year," adds Menon. “The only challenge is to get them to give one month’s salary. Employers still don’t understand why they need to do this." If your employer doesn’t recognize you as a worker, it follows that they don’t need to consider your rights as a worker.

The rights of DWs were recognized in 2011 when the UN’s International Labour Organization adopted a global treaty that emphasized they had the same rights as other workers. The convention came into force in September 2013 and 29 countries have ratified it so far. India is not one of them.

“A bonus is one clear way of making that journey from maid to worker. When you ask for a bonus, you are asking for your rights as a worker," says Rajesh Joseph, who co-authored the paper Between ‘Baksheesh’ And ‘Bonus’: Precarity, Class, And Collective Action Among Domestic Workers In Bengaluru, with Roshni Lobo and Balmurli Natrajan.

In the paper, the authors examined how employers think of their festive largesse more in terms of a baksheesh, or tip, rather than a rightful bonus. “The idea of baksheesh is very caste-based. The employer reasons that she’s doing punya (a good deed) by giving money. It’s an unconscious feudal system at work in an urban area, one that resurfaces every festive season. Many see it as the equivalent of giving alms to the poor and that is what we are questioning. Workers are not beggars," says Joseph, adding that DWs’ right to a bonus is the equivalent of the Union government’s hike in dearness allowance for its employees ahead of Diwali.

It’s a strong call for a mindset change that you have no excuse to dispute.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

@priyaramani

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