It’s 4 am and Vasanthi B is already up. After years, it’s now a habit, and she doesn’t need an alarm to wake up to get her daughters Shweta, Shilpa and Shobha, aged 11, 9 and 7 respectively, ready for school. By the time they leave at 7.30 am, her husband Babu is ready to head out for his job as a daily wage labourer at a nearby food processing factory. Vasanthi now has only about 15 minutes left to get ready herself, have her breakfast and walk to her employer’s house, which is about half a kilometre away. Conscious that any delay will ensure a scolding, she chooses to mostly skip breakfast. This proves to be a lucky day, with her employer being “kind” enough to offer her breakfast, of upma and coconut chutney. On better days, she may also get a hot cup of coffee.
Vasanthi, 32, is a domestic help in Bangalore, a city she made her home eight years ago after getting married and moving from Virajpet in Madikeri, 250 km away. The first stop she makes is just one of the four houses she works in daily to make Rs 3,000-4,000 on an average a month. From 8 am to 4 pm, Vasanthi shuttles between the houses, with a meal in between at one of the houses that she works in. While the money is tempting, she refuses to work beyond this as she prefers to be home when her daughters return from school.
As the case of Devyani Khobragade and her domestic help roils relations between India and the US, Vasanthi works in a state that became India’s first to implement provisions of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, passed by the Centre. Since 2009, six lakh domestic workers like Vasanthi are technically covered by the provisions of the Karnataka State Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Board. The provisions promise a minimum wage of about Rs 5,000 a month for a daily work schedule of eight hours, an identity card, healthcare benefits, life insurance and children’s scholarships, among other things. Needless to say, the provisions remain on paper.
Vasanthi is even part of a 3,000-member domestic workers’ organisation called the Karuna Domestic Workers’ Welfare Trust, and was recently elected its president. She hopes to use the post to create awareness among domestic workers about their rights and to help them gain their salaries as per the Karnataka Minimum Wages Act.
However, the prospects, she admits, are not too promising. Her earlier employer rarely paid her on time, and she had to request for her money, Vasanthi says. “Only few employers appreciate the work of a domestic help. During my initial days, when I approached one employer to remind her of my salary, for a meagre sum of Rs 1,000, she gave me an earful on how dissatisfied she was with my work, how inefficient I was and how I was undeserving to receive the money,” she says.
While this hurt her earlier, Vasanthi considers herself more “mature” now and has learnt to take insults in her stride, she says.
During the hours she spends at her first employer’s home, Vasanthi cleans the utensils, washes the clothes and does the sweeping and mopping. It’s not lost on her that while the family has a washing machine and a machine to help out with the cleaning, she is forbidden to use the devices. She does more or less the same work at other houses.
“Only if I am not keeping well, some employer out of concern may allow me to use the washing machine under their supervision. Others I don’t inform about my ill-health, as I would be asked to leave right away and lose the salary for the day.”
Vasanthi is not permitted any leave nor enjoys any other benefits. “During festivals or some special days, a few employers may give gifts or cash,” she says, admitting that it’s a big incentive for her to work extra hard at these houses.
Sources in the Karnataka State Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Board admit that they have failed to provide a forum to the domestic help to express their rights or seek legal protection, blaming lack of support and funding from the government. An estimated 90 per cent of the domestic workers in the state are under debt, according to the Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Movement (KDWM).
Bangalore alone is known to employ four lakh domestic workers, employed in households and the IT industry. According to Nisha Mathew, the coordinator of the Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Movement, an NGO, Vasanthi is among those in a relatively better position. “In certain pockets of the city, where there are multi-storey apartments and large firms, such as in Koramangala, Indiranagar, Bellandur and JP Nagar, a domestic worker can earn up to Rs 7,000 along with food and accommodation,” she says. “However these workers are still denied long-term benefits such as provident fund or pension.”
Through her commitment and dedication, Vasanthi has over the years earned a name for herself in the spiralling residential area of Koramangala. She is often asked to recommend others for domestic work.
The one thing Vasanthi looks forward to is giving a good education to her daughters who, she says, are doing well at school. She herself could study only till Class X. So, after getting back from work, till her husband returns at 7 pm, Vasanthi prepares snacks for her children and sits with them, helping them revise their subjects, in the rented house they live in at Koramangala.
“English and some other subjects are not easy for me to understand and explain to the children, especially mathematics. But when I sit with them, they are less distracted and concentrate on their studies. Also I want to the youngest Shobha to develop the habit of daily revision just like her sisters,” Vasanthi says.
Their studies is another reason she works, despite all the hardships, misbehaviour and uncertainty. “Though my husband’s salary was good enough to live a simple life, I wanted my daughters to go to a private school. It does not matter if they are girls. As parents, we are committed to providing them education and everything which we did not have.”
They plan to send the eldest for tuitions the coming year.
Vasanthi is hopeful that her efforts will pay off in the future. “We are quite sure our girls will look after us in our old age,” she says. Maybe then she will put up her feet and rest.