Paid domestic work has absorbed the largest share of women entering the labor market in India over the past two decades. Due to the lack of exact data, estimates of the number of domestic workers in India today vary between one to two crore. A large percentage of them are interstate migrants and many are minors.
Due to the lack of recognition of this gendered domestic work as ‘work’, these women are excluded from almost all employment-based social security schemes. Lack of legal protections, as well as caste, class or community Prejudices makes the lives of domestic workers extremely precarious.
Collectivization and unionization are means by which workers can negotiate dignified and fair employment. While the first recorded strike by domestic workers took place in Pune in 1980, over time they have also created stable organizations through which demands can be made for equal social treatment.
In organizing domestic workers in Delhi NCR, Bengaluru and Kolkata, we have found ourselves responding to various cases of abuse that domestic workers have faced precisely because of the precarious nature of their jobs and lack of social recognition of the value of their work.
We highlight a few examples.
Do only workers steal?
One afternoon in February 2022, we received a call from an apartment complex in the Vasant Kunj neighborhood of South Delhi, where residents had gathered around Saima (name changed), an employee house living nearby and originally from West Bengal. After finishing her work, Saima sat on a bench in the compound. This was considered unforgivable.
Residents questioned his personality and guards were called in to revoke his ‘work pass’, which is a piece of paper with his employers’ contact details without which those who look a certain way see themselves refuse entry to the complex. The commotion caught the attention of nearby servants, who refused to take it lying down. The police were called, a “character testimony” was taken from Saima’s employer and a reluctant apology was offered by the resident who sparked the confrontation.
A bystander also joined in, insisting the worker in question was “one of the good guys” and didn’t deserve such treatment. The police advised us not to get involved in such quarrels saying, “Aisa toh hota hi rehta hai (“these things happen”).
In another similar incident in March, Babli (name changed) was given a bag to take home by one of her employers. She knew that leaving the compound with anything in hand could be viewed with suspicion so she showed the guards that it was an empty bag. Another member of the employer’s family saw this exchange and suspected that there might be something of value in the bag. She called Babli back.
Alleging theft, he confiscated her phone and money and she was locked in a room near the security booth. His cries alerted other workers who contacted union members and, before long, eight workers gathered outside to demand his release. Her belongings were eventually returned and she was allowed to leave.
Babli’s ordeal is part of the routine harassment faced by domestic workers, considered objects of suspicion, where the mood of the employer can decide on the infringement of their civil liberties without any consequences. A casual observer would have noticed that domestic workers travel light – they are constantly threatened with being searched to make sure they haven’t robbed the “upper” caste, rentiers and upper-class landowners.
But when they are compensated with only a ticket of Rs 2000, below the minimum wage in almost all states, one is forced to wonder who is really stealing.
Link between the police and residents’ associations
Nor do the police intervene in these disputes as the neutral arbiter of the law. The side that will be protected is often predetermined.
Modern Mahaguna closed high-rise settlement in Noida, witnessed this reality in 2017. Zohra Bibi, a migrant domestic worker was held captive by his employers within the colony after a dispute over payroll dues. The neighbors of the slum where she lived were able to secure her release after nearly 17 hours of forced confinement.
An investigation team found that instead of acting against employers and security personnel who colluded with them, the police arrested 13 workers and demolished the shops of those who protested. The Resident Welfare Association (RWA) circulated a blacklist of 80 workers who were to be barred entry. A media trial portrayed them as “Bangladeshis” because Zohra Bibi was a Bangla-speaking Muslim and then Union Minister Mahesh Sharma assured residents that those arrested would never be given bail, even before the start of the trial.
Domestic workers who raise their voices are seen as nuisances who have to keep their heads down and live with the cards dealt to them.
While the work of domestic workers is not legally recognized as “work” by the Delhi government, RWAs in some complexes have stepped into the vacuum left by policy makers to set wages and working conditions. . Through a verification network, grading systems, security checks, separate entrances, and increasingly digitized monitoring, RWAs create a working environment of pure servitude.
A rating system through WhatsApp groups of employers we met determined the hiring of workers on parameters such as personal cleanliness, pleasant personality (read tame), reliability, and more. The system is similar to those we see in the emergence ‘gigification’ domestic work, where algorithmic efficiency is used to determine employability without domestic workers having a say in their experiences with a particular employer.
Paroma Ray is a researcher at the University of Delhi associated with the Sangrami Gharelu-Kamgar Union.