The Work of Domestic Work

Domestic work is often not viewed by society and government as "real" work. They are usually referred to as "maids," "servants," or "helpers." This social stigma has undermined the self-esteem of domestic workers. But there has been a shift over the years in the awareness and recognition of domestic work as work. The term "domestic worker" itself intends to give dignity, status and respect to the occupation. The empowerment of domestic workers and the struggle for fair working conditions has contributed to this shift in attitudes by some employers as domestic workers have come to be valued as employees and human beings.

The National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) has been fighting for the rights and dignity of domestic workers in India since 1985. NDWM is now organizing domestic workers in 23 states across the country, including child domestic workers and migrant domestic workers.  In Tamilnadu, they are active in 18 districts and work towards achieving dignity for domestic work and workers, at both a national and international level.  Locally, they are registered as Tamilnadu Domestic Workers Welfare Trust (TNDWWT) and Migrant Domestic Workers Welfare Trust (MDWWT). TNDWWT and MDWWT encourage participation and leadership in the hands of domestic workers, stand together for the rights of domestic workers, seeking justice and legislation for them, and create a strong public awareness to enable domestic workers to achieve a healthy recognition in society

Domestic workers in India, similar to their counterparts in other parts of Asia and the Middle East, face harsh working conditions. Nearly 90% of domestic workers are women, girls or children, ranging from ages 12 to 75. These women have typically left their own homes to look after other people's homes. The majority of domestic workers are illiterate. Domestic workers are engaged in such tasks as cooking, washing, and cleaning, which are traditionally seen as women's work and therefore undervalued. In India, the stigma for domestic work is heightened by the caste system, as tasks such as cleaning and sweeping are associated with low castes.

Domestic workers are highly exploited and denied just and humane wages. Domestic workers are paid well below the minimum wage for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Labor laws do not cover domestic workers, as a result of the fact that the society at large does not consider this work to be classified as labor. Domestic workers are not recognized as workers, and hence do not enjoy legal protection, rights and dignity. The working hours of domestic workers can go up to as many as 18 hours per day. Wage, leave facilities, medical benefits and rest time depend completely on the employer, as there is no government regulation. Domestic workers are often victims of suspicion by their employers. If anything is missing in the house, they are the first to be accused with threats, physical violence, police conviction and even dismissal.

Many factors drive predominantly women to take employment as domestic workers. Deepening poverty is a major factor, and government programmes have failed to make an impact on poverty reduction and the adverse impact of globalization has further impoverished the poor. Family problems, rural and male unemployment, disputes, ill-treatment, loss of parent/s are also factors. The displacement of communities including women, during natural calamities such as earthquake, floods, and drought and the resulting poor rehabilitation of victims drive women to seek work in especially urban areas, and typically the work they find is domestic work. Biased religious and cultural practices that go against women and children also push women to look for work outside their home communities. Ever increasing debt burdens due to failing crops mean that women must seek new types of employment to repay debts. Often domestic workers are single parents, widowed, estranged or with alcoholic husbands. They must work for the survival of their children.

Migrant domestic work

Many women migrate from their villages to work as domestic workers. This migration takes two forms: rural to urban, and cross-border migration to countries outside of India. Whether the domestic worker migrates within India or travels overseas, she finds herself in a foreign environment, away from her family and adjusting to new languages, food, and cultures. Migrants are typically live-in domestic workers and are thus most vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, excessively long working hours and deprivation. Many of them are from tribal regions and the traditional discrimination they face as women and as live-in domestic workers is compounded by their ethnicity. Despite these problems, poor women continue to migrate to cities and foreign countries as a way to supplement their families' meagre incomes.

This can be seen in the story of a young Tamil woman, Geeta, who was found dead at 17, at the house of her employer in Kerala, hundreds of kilometers away from her parent's home. Her death was simply called a suicide by her employer, without any adequate evidence for this claim or any investigation done by the police into the real cause of death. Her parents were even subject to the unjust torment of being accused in pushing their daughter to suicide, allegedly due to Geeta's unhappiness at a forthcoming arranged marriage.

The facts of the case, as provided to our domestic workers' group, showed us that the girl was most likely murdered by her employer. Prior to this she had complained to her sister and her parents about the physical abuse she had suffered at the hands of her employer. It was her family's difficult financial situation, complicated by an accident which led to large medical expenses and prevented her father from working, that pushed her mother to send Geeta to Kerala for domestic work when she was only 11 years old. This is just one example of the struggle faced by domestic workers who migrate to other states or countries.

Reasons for Migration within India

Migration from rural areas to big cities typically occurs due to debt bondage, poverty, sudden death in the family, and rural and male unemployment. A great number of live-in domestic workers are recruited from villages and tribal areas. The glamor of city life acts as a further "pull" factor inducing young girls and women to migrate. Working in cities is seen as a solution to poverty and villagers are unaware of the difficult working conditions and poor remuneration of domestic workers. Additionally, a large number of domestic workers come from areas that have been subjected to natural disasters and man-made crisis situations (such as insurgency) and as such are from displaced communities.

Trafficked Domestic Workers and Trafficking Agencies

Increasingly, "trafficking agencies" have become a very significant factor in encouraging internal migration within India. In the arena of domestic work, organized trafficking is taking place as villagers living in the cities are returning to their native places to bring more women, girls and children into this labor sector. In Tamilnadu, some interior rural villages have hundreds of agencies that sell domestic workers. This points to the well-organized nature of the entire racket. Once the girls arrive in the cities, their wages are typically locked or they go unpaid in order to pay the traffickers a fee for securing employment.

If the girls decide to migrate on their own, they are still in danger of falling into the clutches of agents. They either employ the girls directly or they hand them to local agents for a commission. The girls are often locked in a dark room without ventilation until a job is found. These agents then take commissions from the girls and the employers. The girls find themselves in a situation of bonded labor. Some agents arrange with the employers that the girls' salaries be paid to the agents. The money is then held for a year and deposited in the agents' bank accounts, depriving the girl of her money and the opportunity to earn interest. They are forced to work under the recruiting agent, who does not follow up on the girls' situations once jobs are secured.

Migration Outside of India

Richer industrialising countries are increasingly demanding cheap, menial and domestic labor from poorer, less developed countries such as India. Because the job of a domestic worker does not require experience, thousands of Indian women travel to countries in the Middle East, South East Asia, and sometimes Europe and North America in search of jobs paying higher wages. However, these women earn the lowest salary for a foreign worker, despite the fact that they may be earning more than they would in India. Many women travel abroad to send money back home in an effort to improve their quality of life in India. However, in traveling abroad, they become vulnerable to corrupt recruitment practices, lack of work contracts, withheld salaries, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the workplace and the inability to return home.

The procedure for migrating abroad for work in India is very unregulated. Unlike countries such as Sri Lanka, the Indian government has not implemented a pre-departure program aimed at educating migrants of their rights. In order to travel abroad, migrants are forced to borrow large sums of money, often with exorbitant interest rates, to pay fees to brokers. Many times the migrants, who are often illiterate and naive to the potential risks of entrusting large sums of money with strangers, are the victims of scams by the fly-by-night brokers. These con artists do not secure the promised job abroad, give them false tickets, or do not secure the appropriate paperwork so that the women can legally work as domestic workers.

Thus, many women find themselves in a foreign country without the necessary papers. They are especially vulnerable to not being paid the promised salary and being held in conditions of slavery without the ability to complain to the police. In many cases, the employer holds on to the domestic worker's passport, preventing her from leaving or contacting the Indian embassy to file complaints. Porous borders and weak law enforcement in the border areas due to inefficient or corrupt policing contribute to unregulated migration, where migrants can easily fall victim to exploitative recruiting agents or traffickers.

Working Conditions of Foreign Migrant Domestic Workers

Once they migrate, the domestic workers have little or no contact with their families at home. They cannot write letters as they are typically illiterate and they are not allowed access to the telephone. Since they are not typically given leave, migrant domestic workers do not have the opportunity to travel to their villages and visit their family. Because these migrants live with their employers, their free time is severely restricted. Often, they are unable to meet with friends and relatives from their village who are also working in the same city.

They often need to learn a new language in order to communicate with their employers, so they are more prone than other domestic workers to misunderstanding instructions and consequently making mistakes. Many of these girls have very limited skills. They are unable to use appliances and many have limited cooking skills. They are vulnerable to harsh reprisals, beatings and other forms of punishment, for breaking household items or making mistakes.

In countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, there is a dearth of protective laws for domestic workers. Migrant domestic workers are frequently subjected to harsh verbal and physical abuse. Some are sexually harassed. They face racial discrimination in the country where they work and when they return home. They are discriminated against because other migrants in the area had been sexually abused and/or impregnated.

Campaign to Recognize Domestic Work as Work

Domestic worker organizing is gaining momentum throughout India and Asia more broadly. Campaigns to demand that domestic work is recognized as work have even strengthened internationally such that the International Labour Organization (ILO) has agreed to draft a domestic workers convention, which it will adopt in 2010. In Asia, a new Asian Domestic Workers Union (ADWU) formed in 2007, with its first Assembly having taken place in Cyprus and its second this past May in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Assembly brings together domestic workers and their advocates to strengthen activities both of the ADWU and its allies. The National Domestic Workers Movement is allied with the ADWU.

In Tamilnadu, the Migrant Domestic Workers Welfare Trust and the National Domestic Workers Movement - Tamilnadu Region focus on organizing domestic workers as well as combating trafficking from the tribal belt. Community based pre-departure awareness programmes are conducted to make the women aware of what they will face, to ensure a safe migration. These include meetings allowing those returning from cities to share their experiences with prospective migrants. Inquiries need to be constantly conducted to maintain contact with those who are going to work in the cities. Vocational and skill training programmes have been set up for young girls to enable them to build a better future for themselves. Capacity building sessions for all stakeholders are conducted. Recruitment agents and brokers are identified. Officials are being warned and requested to be especially alert during the Christmas, Easter, other festivals and the summer seasons, as this is when agents and brokers come to villages. This is essential to protect the target group from the clutches of exploitation.

These organizations carry out active lobbying for improvement of the educational system. Non-formal education programs and bridge schools are run to help children be placed into the mainstream education. They network with other non-government organizations, government organizations, policy makers and police in source and destination areas in order to facilitate rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation.

Nagma, age 44, from Tamilnadu quit school after the 5th standard, when her parents got severe knee problems caused by the work they did as coolies to provide for their five children. While Nagma's brother started to work as a coolie, Nagma took up the profession of domestic work. She was only 10 years old at the time. Her parents did not push her into this work, she wanted to work and support her family just like her brothers. After marrying at age 19, she and her husband left for Chennai in search of better job opportunities. Upon arrival in Chennai, Nagma felt lonely and isolated. However, she quickly got to know many of the neighbouring women who were employed as domestic workers. They helped her find employment as a domestic worker, too. She was surprised that the solidarity amongst domestic workers was so strong at that time; they even looked after her three children when she went to work.

The Movement has played a pivotal role in encouraging her to speak up and negotiate with her employers. After joining the Movement, she has gained more self-confidence and strength, she affirms with a determined voice. She is only sorry that she did not get in touch with the Movement earlier. The most important learning experience for her was that she got to know many other women with whom she could share her experiences and exchange ideas.  Nagma tells us how fascinated she is by the solidarity and power that keeps the Movement together. Her commitment to the Movement is palpable and her excitement is reflected in her glittering eyes. "Through talking and actively participating, I have learned to stand up for myself," she says.

To curb international migration, similar steps are taken. Pre-departure manuals have been disseminated to increase awareness of the risks and challenges of migration. The plight of migrant domestic workers abroad have been documented. Active advocacy and lobbying is carried out. Crisis interventions are carried out to victimized individuals. Networks are established with other NGOs that work on international migration.

The National Domestic Workers Movement has connected as an ally organization to the Asian Domestic Workers Union and attended the past two Asian Domestic Workers Assemblies. The National Domestic Workers Movement partner organization, Migrant Forum India, is a member of the Asia-wide network, Migrant Forum in Asia. The work with these regional partners has advanced the rights of domestic workers, towards recognizing domestic work as work.

Challenges on the Road Ahead

One of the critical challenges is to make the shift in the attitude of the public to see themselves as employers. This is critical in making the human rights of workers an everyday reality. Villagers also need more awareness about the risks and exploitation they face from recruitment agents and brokers. To stop these middle men playing a key role in migration has become the big challenge in the villages and prevents a safe migration. Migrant domestic workers need assistance and awareness of their rights to ensure a safe migration. Government must be lobbied to enforce its laws and implement new laws to safeguard domestic workers and recognize their labor as work.  The biggest challenge and yearning is to create awareness in the whole of Tamilnadu and to extend this throughout India and Asia.


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