THEY clean our houses, cook for us, baby sit our children and take care of our elderly parents, and yet the promise of social security eludes them.
When some valuable goes missing, we are the first to be questioned. But when it is found later on at home, the owners don’t even bother to tell us. No matter how much domestic workers toil by working in different houses every day, their need for dignity, protection and security is largely ignored.
While the actual numbers are not known, one estimate puts the number of domestic workers/house maids at six lakh in Bangalore. Yet, this invisible workforce toils away without any kind of benefits.
Unlike other unorganised sectors, the a majority of domestic workers comprises young girls and women. Protection from sexual, physical and mental harassment is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
“All we are asking for is respect and empathy from the employers,” says Lakshmi M, a domestic maid. However, such employers are few and far between, say her colleagues. Since most women are part-time workers, they work in more than one house, where the nature of work varies. While some houses fix the wages on an hourly basis, others decide on the number of jobs done, such as washing clothes, rinsing vessels, sweeping and wiping the floor and dusting. However, additional work or overtime is never compensated for, say domestic workers.
For instance, Mary, a maid was hired for dusting along with three others. Her salary was fixed accordingly. But she is often asked to take up additional work whenever another maid is absent. She is not paid for the extra work.
“When I asked my employer for extra pay, she said that I had to do it and that she has employed four maids so that one would substitute for the other,” she says. Mary has been working as a maid since the age of seven. From doing work in four houses five years ago, 45-year-old Mary now works only in two houses, including the one where she does only dusting work. Loss of stamina and joint pains are the reason for her cutting down the number of houses where she works, she says.
Another domestic worker, Vannamma S, who toils in four houses, says the salary is cut when she takes leave for more than two days. “There have been times when they wouldn’t believe that I was down with fever, and insist that I personally go to their house and seek permission to take leave,” she recalls.
Geeta Menon, a member of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security and Welfare Board, says that the draft of domestic workers’ working condition regulation and social security bill was formulated and submitted to the National Council of Women last year. A key suggestion was the provision for pension at the age of 50 years, since many domestic workers start working at a very early age.
The national advisory committee headed by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi had also formed a task force to look into domestic workers’ issues. However, all these will take time to materialise.
For now, the civil organisations and the Domestic Workers Rights Union want the State labour department-governed Unorganised Workers Social Security and Welfare Board to include domestic workers in its ambit.
“The department took the decision to include six sectors, but has not included domestic workers on the pretext that it is hard to define employers in this sector,” Menon says.
Domestic workers are the most vulnerable lot, as all are women. Sexual harassment, allegations of theft, caste discrimination, lack of maternity and medical benefits are issues they face. Yet, the labour department has turned a deaf ear to their demands, Menon laments.
(Published in Deccan Herald)