Over 70 domestic workers from different parts of Chennai, came to a workshop at ICSA, Egmore on 21st October, (Friday), to discuss and evolve a charter for proposals to improve the national policy on domestic workers. The meeting was organized by Center for Workers Management, (CWM) a research and advocacy group along with Action Aid India. The workshop was presided by Regina Peter from Arunodhaya and Anthonyammal from NDWM.
Introducing the workshop, Com. Dithhi Bhattacharya, Director of CWM said that there is a trope that women cannot put forward a clear set of demands or proposals and that they can only gossip. This stereotype stands negated today as women have come to together to evolve a well articulated charter for improving working conditions of domestic workers. She also highlighted that the male dominated policy circles which drafts national policy, rather than learn from the workers, imposes a certain external vision and thereby fails to address the needs of the workers. This was an attempt to evolve a charter that emerges from the experiences of the workers.
Com. Sumathi of Penn Thozhilalar Sangam, reported about the surveys and mappings of domestic workers, interviews on occupational health and safety issues as well as sharing sessions on livelihood conditions, that they had conducted in the past few months. She said that similar consultations were held at the branch and area level to gain a sense of the priority issues of domestic workers.
During the sharing session domestic workers, representing various areas, highlighted number of issues, including the need for a weekly day off, medical cover for self like ESI, better housing facilities in residential neighbourhoods as against relocation colonies and education for children. Ms. Latha from Perungudi, shared her evolution over time saying “when I first joined, it was about getting work, other things did not matter, but over time, I felt that there were a number of issues. I was having trouble taking care of my child, the wages were not enough, and I cant get leave. It was only after we came together as a Union, I began rising these issues. Its not as if we get it immediately, but we have to make the demand. If we don’t speak for us, who is going to.”
Malathy from Chozhan Nagar in North Chennai, spoke about the stigma attached to domestic work and the need to fight it. “we are often looked down upon by our employers, but how can our work demean us. It is they who are to be shamed, who cannot take care of their house, we on the other hand are taking care of two houses”. Yet she suggested that they take no loans as salary advances from the employers as it puts a bad light on them. This was contested by others who insisted that if ‘others can avail loans from their employers, why not domestic workers.’
Malathy also suggested that they demand ESI coverage and standardize the wages so that no worker works for less than the agreed minimum. She also hinted at the need for compensatory leave after festivals. “we do more work during festivals, we can’t have any celebration back home, it is important that it is recognized and we are also given time to celebrate at home.”
Malliga from Anna Nagar, who works as a cook said that wage rates are low and it is also a lot of bargaining. For over 2 hours of work, our wage ranges from 2000 rupees to 3000 rupees, with which it is difficult to manage one’s livelihood. She said that they have to get atleast 50 rupees for every hour of work.
After the sharing by representatives, there were discussion over three major issues, that of wages, leave and Bonus. While the workers felt that the wage was low, when a proposal to demand 85 rupees an hour was made (minimum wage of 18000 rupees a month on a hourly basis), they felt that no employer will agree as they are not willing to even pay 50 rupees an hour. Comrade Ditthi, citing the Chicago workers struggles, pointed out that even though they were making outlandish demands for their time, the struggles won over the demands for future generation. Some argued that it is better to demand this and get it legislated as that would empower them to fight for the wage with the employers. Similarly, while the workers did argue for a weekly off, when it was proposed that it be Sunday, they said that it would be impossible as Sundays are the most hectic days. They were satisfied with a weekly off rather than a Sunday off. They also agreed to demand a 30 day (12 causal leave and 18 day medical leave) paid leave a year, after a lot of discussion. There was near unanimity on the demand for a bonus of not less than a month’s wage.
These demands are to be prepared into a charter and circulated with the concerned ministries to improve the national policy on domestic workers and also impress upon the state to legislate working conditions for domestic workers.