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India's Shadow Workforce Battles For Rights, Dignity

India's household workers are among the largest workforces in the country and, yet, the vast majority of them are unprotected by government labor laws. That appears to be changing, as Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Chennai, the capital of India's southeastern state, Tamil Nadu.

Pooja, a 36-year-old mother of four, is one of more than 100 million domestic workers in India. One of her biggest fears is that she will get sick or injured and unable to work. Like many of India's domestic workers, she does not have worker benefits like sick or disability pay.

She says she has been working in a house several years, but if she is injured or is not well she will lose her salary. but she says because she has worked there regularly she should be paid for certain accidents or sickness. She says domestic workers are dependent on that salary for their livelihood.

As India's economy booms, so does the number of households that can afford to hire maids, cooks, and "dhobis" to do laundry. Domestic workers have become India's third-largest job category, behind farming and construction.

But domestic workers are usually unskilled, illiterate, and often are fleeing the persistent poverty of India's farming villages. More often than not, they are from the lower rungs of India's caste system, a deeply entrenched social order in which one's profession and societal status are inherited at birth.

Domestic workers in much of India do not have the same protections and benefits as, say, construction workers or software engineers. They do not get paid holidays, retirement or severance pay, sick days. In many cases, they are expected to work seven days a week.

Some critics say the lack of government oversight for domestic workers has allowed unscrupulous recruiters to flourish who exploit women and children, hiring them out to households and keeping a large portion of their salaries.

Josephine Valarmathi is a coordinator for the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Welfare Board in Chennai. She says the campaign for the rights of domestic workers begins by changing the way most Indians refer to them, using feudal-sounding words like servant and owner instead of more neutral terms such as "employee," "worker," and "employer."

"Domestic workers are not servants," she said. "They are the laborers. So we should recognize their work and call them workers. I am doing domestic work I am a domestic worker. If I am doing construction work I am a construction worker. I am a worker, not a servant."

In what many here see as growing confidence among the nation's domestic workers, some labor unions across India have started campaigning to include domestic workers in government labor laws. Domestic worker unions have held street protests in Chennai and Bangalore to call for salary increases, sick pay and a weekly day off.

Chennai's Center for Street and Working Children is a nonprofit agency that organizes domestic workers. Its director, Virgil D'Sami, says the government has been slow to embrace reforms to improve the lives of domestic workers.

"It is because all the bureaucrats have domestic workers in their own house now," he said. "I remember when we were discussing with the secretary of [India's] Labor Department, we were inviting him for one of the May Day activities for domestic workers. He was so good. We were having a lot of discussion. Then we were about to leave, he said, 'If I tell my wife, that is all, she will kill me.' So each one of us has a domestic worker in our house so it becomes difficult for them also."

But the proliferation of domestic worker unions across the country appears to be paying off.

Last year, the Tamil Nadu state government extended some of its labor protections to include domestic workers. Similar legislation was passed in five other Indian states, mainly extending minimum wage benefits to domestic workers. Most recently, India's cabinet signed off on a bill that, if approved by the nation's parliament, legal analysts say it would enshrine the rights of domestic workers across the country.

But those same analysts say that in India enacting a law is one thing, enforcing it is another. For now, people like Pooja are eagerly awaiting the government's decision, expected next year.