(Vatican Radio) Around 1,000 women domestic workers in Delhi and neighboring areas gathered in the national capital to mark International Domestic Workers’ Day on Tuesday, June 16. The program, organized by the Chetnalaya domestic workers’ forum, also tried to educate them about their rights. Chetnalaya (awakening) is the social action wing of Archdiocese of Delhi.
Domestic workers with scarce knowledge of the laws and their rights are more often than not unduly exploited. The event highlighted the dark side of domestic work in which many women work long hours and sometimes suffer sexual and physical abuse at the hands of their employers.
The Chetnalaya domestic workers’ forum counsels these women to make them aware of their rights and to provide opportunities for empowerment. A total of 4,000 domestic workers are registered with the forum, which encourages them to raise issues that concern them in their workplaces or at home.
Speaking to the Vatican Radio a week prior to the event, Fr. Savari Raj, Director of Chetanalaya said “In order to empower the domestic workers, every Sunday we have meetings or gatherings for them and different programmes. We also put them into micro groups with 10 – 15 domestic workers in each. The micro groups serve as a support system so that they can come together and fight for their rights.”
Fr. Savari Raj also narrated how the Chetanalaya, with the help of the Delhi police, has succeeded in rescuing girls from houses or workplaces where they faced exploitation. “In the recent past 30 girls were rescued,” he said.
“These women were hesitant to speak because they were shy, but after attending regular meetings and leadership training, they are able to speak up and resist attempts at exploitation that occur in their workplace,” said Anushika Thompson, the forum’s advocacy and networking officer.
Chetnalaya also helps domestic workers understand and fill in important government documents like proof of identity, she said. “They go through the process with us and guide others. It helps them become confident.”
Sushma Lugul, a domestic worker, who never finished school, told ucanews.com “I have been a domestic worker for more than 15 years. Cleaning, sweeping, washing has become a part of my life now.”
Lugul came to work as a domestic worker in Delhi from the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand and says that, though she has been treated well by her employers, there has not been much improvement in her standard of living after all these years.
The women at the event demanded ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers by the Indian government.
The convention, adopted in Geneva in 2011, requires each member country to fix a minimum wage for domestic workers, who in India form a major part of the national workforce. It also requires its members to ensure security for these workers and provide them with decent living conditions with respect to their privacy.
However, the Indian government has yet to ratify the convention.
“Our advocacy with the Indian government is to pressurize it to ratify the ILO convention and to bring the domestic workers under organized labour so that they get the minimum wage and their basic rights as workers,” explains Fr. Savari Raj.
“Usually, domestic workers in India are overworked and underpaid. They are often subjected to sexual and physical violence just because there are no laws and policies to protect them,” said Ramnika Gupta, a social activist working on behalf of tribal girls employed as domestic workers in large cities.
Most of these girls migrate from tribal communities in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar states for better employment opportunities to support their impoverished families back home, Gupta said.
Exploitation starts with the middlemen, who sometimes sexually abuse them or sell them on for a petty amount to work in private houses, Gupta said. “Sometimes these girls become untraceable [to their families] because they are sold on to other households” without any records being kept, she said.
Even placement agencies through which these women seek work are also sometimes not registered, and so victims have nowhere to go to complain, she added.
Kalpana Kallnake, another social activist working for the rights of domestic workers, told ucanews.com that in India these individuals are often exploited because they are considered weak and cannot stick up for themselves.
“They come from far away villages to a different alien land where they do not know anyone. It becomes easy for their employers to exploit their situation,” she said.
Commenting on remarks made Tuesday by Delhi labor minister, Gopal Rai, that the Delhi government intended to draw up a bill focusing on a minimum wage, social justice and health benefit for domestic workers in the capital, Kallnake expressed her doubts. No such move for the betterment of these women is likely to emerge in reality, she said.
“If the government takes into consideration the financial status of these women and ensures them a minimum wage and a monthly pension for the elderly, most of their problems will be solved,” Kallnake said.
According to the National Sample Survey Organization, there were 2.52 million domestic workers in the country in 2009-2010.
Rani Devi did not realize how hard life would be as a domestic worker. “It is demoralizing. I work in four houses and am exhausted by the end of the day. But what I get at the end of the month hardly helps me meet my household expenses,” she said. Devi, who hails from Bihar, earns only 5,000 rupees (US$78) a month.
“If I ask for an increase in wages, my employers tell me do the job or quit,” she said, adding that she has to work because her husband, who is a day laborer, does not earn enough to make ends meet.
Usha Devi also feels disillusioned. “Our employers do not realize our worth. Rich women go out to work in big offices because we are back home taking care of their kitchen and children, and what we get in return is peanuts. They curse us even when we ask for holidays,” she said.
“We do not mind working but at least there has to be some recognition of our work, no exploitation, timely payment of our wages and respect,” she said.