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The ‘slaves’ in an Indian household

58-year-old Kaveri Ammal works as a domestic help in a neighborhood in Chennai in southern India. She leads a hard life, travelling 15 kilometers everyday to work in different neighborhoods and earning a salary of about 2,500 Rupees or around 50 dollars every month. Her work usually involves washing the dishes, cleaning the laundry, ironing, sweeping and washing the floors. Between her cleaning assignments, she takes a nap in a temple close by or visits her daughter or friends who live in the area.

Kaveri’s hardship doesn’t end here. She also has to suffer the moods of her employers, which range from screaming at the domestic help to beating her up or locking her inside a room for several hours. In one such incident, Kaveri’s employer got angry at her for not doing the dishes and started shouting at her. Kaveri began arguing with her employer, Mrs. Sharma, which was probably not the best idea at the time, because she was slapped. To add to the confusion, Mrs. Sharma’s 11-year-old came in and threatened to stab Kaveri with a knife. Luckily, the boy stopped before he could do Kaveri any harm, but the mother and son locked up the domestic help in a small room without food or water for several hours.  It was only when neighbors heard Kaveri’s screams that they called up a helpline for domestic workers and managed to get her out.

Kaveri’s story is quite normal for many domestic workers in India who suffer violence, sexual abuse and maltreatment at the hands of their employers. In a conversation with Women Talk Online, K.R. Renuka, Executive Director of the Centre for Women’s Development and Research (CWDR), Chennai, says that her organization deals with such cases on a regular basis. “This case was especially serious since we had to file a report with the police. After the domestic help was rescued, the employer broke down before the activists and admitted, she had simply vented all her frustration on her servant.” Despite the apology, CWDR activists filed a case against the employer for illegally locking Kaveri up.

Organizations like the CWDR are a godsend for domestic servants in India. The CWDR’s initiative Manushi works as a trade union for household workers.  Renuka says that the organization provides training to women and men looking for cleaning work. They are taught to respect their jobs by dressing neatly, reaching their employer’s house on time protesting any discrimination or injustice at their hands of their employer.

For Renuka, one of the toughest problems has been defining the house as a workplace in the framework of Indian law. This was an important step before Manushi could be legally recognized as a trade union. Also, once the household was recognized as a workplace for domestic servants, laws that were valid in the workplace could also be applied. “For me as a housewife, my house is the workplace. Once that is defined and accepted, things will change,” says Renuka.

Manushi activists have organized a host of campaigns and rallies to raise the public’s awareness about the household as a workplace. This has helped create respect for cleaning up at home, not only for domestic servants, but also for women who stayed at home while their husbands worked outside. Renuka says that the state government initially did not include household and domestic workers in its bill on violence against women in the workplace. But after significant campaigning and innumerable petitions, the CWDR was successful in getting domestic workers into the government’s agenda. The organization also helps domestic servants to join the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Welfare Board.

Renuka’s initiatives may just help the 2.5 million domestic workers in Tamil Nadu, but for domestic workers in other parts of India, the situation still seems bleak. Some reports say that the number of domestic workers could be around 90 million in India, but official figures by the National Sample Survey (NSS) peg the numbers at around 4.75 million. Women constitute 71 percent, making the sector the one to employ the largest number of women in India.

In a recent film called “Delhi in a day,” director Prashant Nair picks out stories from various households in Delhi and how they treat their domestic helpers. There are several cases where employers lock up their servants for days on end before going on holiday.

India has a huge middle class which is profiting from the economic boom. Unfortunately, the poor and the marginalized have gained little, while the rich continue to prosper. Domestic servants are one such example of a class of people whose services are not recognized formally and their employers take this as an excuse to deny them their basic human rights.

Author: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

Editor: Grahame Lucas


13.06.2013 | 14:55