Sunday, March 31, 2013

Listening to the Help

A few years ago, I’d hired a domestic worker who looked like she ought to be past retirement. I had just moved houses and couldn’t afford to pay the lady who used to work for me before. But before I’d had a chance to scout for another ‘maid’, this lady showed up at my door. Gray hair, slightly stooped at the shoulders, not even bothering to look around the tiny two-room ‘house’ she was offering to clean. But she obviously needed the job.

I asked if she’d bring in a relative. That’s often how it works — an older woman negotiates, then passes on the job to her daughter or daughter-in-law. But she wanted to do the work herself.

I felt guilty about having her work so hard, so I tried to share the household work. Also, concerned about hygiene, I laid down some rules – Don’t use a broom to dust books; don’t use the mop to clean the mirror; wash your hands after swabbing floors. I bought a new cake of soap, and told her that it was for her.I cannot forget the way she looked at me that day. At first, I thought she was offended. I was starting to apologise when she caught my hand and took it to her forehead. In broken Hindi, she began to express gratitude.

She didn’t use the soap much to be honest. But she began to grin at me frequently. Slowly, it sank in. She had expected to be told what to do, but she did not expect me to think of what she needs. Decades of working in Delhi’s ‘kothis’ (middle-class bunglows), and she had never been bought a fresh cake of soap.

I’m thinking of her today because I’ve been reading about a public hearing organised by Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union, focused on women who work in the unorganised sector.

For decades, domestic workers have been trying to get organised so they can claim basic labour rights. This is difficult, partly because most domestic workers have multiple employers, and partly because there is no proof that they work in such-n-such home for x number of hours. There is no guarantee of a bonus. Holidays are ad hoc, because most employers will not agree to a day off on weekends. This means the worker just takes time off whenever he/she needs it. It also means that she could be penalised or ‘scolded’ for such holidays.But most of all, they worry about their future. There is no hope of ‘promotion’ and most of them (the women at least) seem to want to retire at the age of 50. This is what came up when about 30 women addressed a panel at the recent public hearing.

Nearly 250 domestic workers attended. Some came from around Delhi and some from Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh too. They wanted a minimum wage, adjusted against inflation. They told stories of being brought from villages by ‘agents’, who do not let them quit jobs or return home so easily. A resolution was passed asking for a new law to protect domestic workers’ rights. This would mean fixing wages according to the number of hours worked, allowing maternity leave, weekly and annual vacations, and insurance.

Whether a new law is needed, or whether an amendment needs to be made to existing labour laws to cover domestic work with its specific employment problems, I cannot say. But I can say that I do not want to watch a stooping, greying woman mopping floors again. She deserved to retire with a pension. We all do.

Published here


jo said...

Labour is so plentiful, unless there's a form of central agency or unionisation its almost impossible to impose minimum wages on this 'informal' sector. Agree with the sentiments..

zap said...

What about a co-operative society model to give them negotiating power, maintain levels of service etc? Has anyone tried?

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