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‘Many of us are exploited’

I have been working as a domestic helper for the last three years. Earlier, I used to work in a hospital where I received my salary on time and the work hours were fixed. My only problem there was that I had to clean patients’ blood, stool and urine. Many people might not have a problem in dealing with such things but I had an issue with it.

Then I started working in an apartment where my employer was a banker. The family was good and they treated me well. But I was overworked, so much so that I hardly got time to use the restroom or to have my meals.  They would keep assigning me one task after the other throughout the day. But since they behaved so nicely, I could not say ‘no’. Whether that was their strategy to exploit me or not, is debatable. But now, when I look back, I feel it might have been.

Maids’ salaries are really low. And that is a big issue. I have three daughters and I have to marry them off. My husband used to work as a rickshaw driver, but he can no longer work because of an injury. This is why I had to take up domestic work. But managing the house with such a meagre income becomes tough.

I am working at a guest house now, here I like the work I do. The workload is not heavy but the money is not much. So, I keep looking for more work that I can take up. Washing clothes for the guests, cleaning their rooms or washing the dishes — I try to do some extra work so that I can earn a little more money.

Working conditions are never perfect, no matter where we work — sometimes the work is good, but the salary is less. At some places, the money may be good, but the employers don’t treat us well.

So, we have to make the choice. Exploitation of all kinds exist in the kind of work that we do. Even my friends and fellow workers believe so. Many of them have faced more unpleasant experiences than I have, including physical abuse or sexual harassment. And we often have the urge to complain or at least talk to someone about it — but we do not know how to go about it.

Sharda Devi works as a domestic helper in Delhi

As told to Shruti Das

‘They are vulnerable’

The condition of domestic workers in our country is not favourable because they are informal or unorganised workers. They do not get the wage they deserve — according to the time and labour they give. Plus, they have no fixed working hours. There are no specific laws protecting them, and nor they have any proper documentation — no identity proof, most of them having migrated from other states or countries.

Usually, they are from Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Often when they move to the city for work, they do not carry Aadhaar or other documents with them. So, they fail to acquire social security, which becomes a major handicap.

Also, female domestic workers are more vulnerable. They have no proper protection. They are exposed to violence and harassment at the workplace. The first thing we do with such people is to sensitise them — make them understand what violence entails and the steps that they can take if they are ever subjected to it. Also, where to complain when such a situation arises.

We work on a variety of campaigns. Our advocacy is on several levels — from the place where our domestic workers work, their employers’ home to the government. The government also include the local ones. So, it is not just one level advocacy that we do. A very important part of our work is also to work on community issues — the areas and communities where they are functioning — we plan how to make it better. Like we work on various aspects like electricity, water issues, roads and drainage system of that particular community.

Like sensitising, there are other things our society needs to adopt to make their condition better. For example, the workers need to form a union. They should be mobilised and sensitised about their rights, collectively. That is very important because until and unless they support each other, their journey gets tougher. So, strengthening the union is a major factor.

Currently, we are working on a campaign against violence — which is basically an awareness campaign.  What we do is to sensitise all kinds of workers — including domestic helps — where we talk about what violence is and how to deal with it.

Also, we are stressing for the formation of a Local Complaints’ Committee (LCC). For informal workers, under the 2013 Sexual Harassment Law, LCC is important but it is not functioning anywhere.

Aditi Yagnik oversees the organising and mobilising functions of SEWA

(SEWA Delhi is committed to strengthening the movement of female  workers in Delhi’s informal economy by highlighting their issues at the national level and building poor women members’ capacities)

As told to Shruti Das  n