Pushpa Hande, a domestic worker in Bhayander, travelled over 30 km on Friday in her bright new orange sari to meet the “raja-rani”, the royal Belgian couple now on a visit to India. Hande is employed in three households to sweep and mop. On Friday, she took special leave to meet Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde.
“I want to tell them how important it is for maids to know their rights. I spent hours working in houses and got a low salary. We never expected to be respected by our employers. Now I raise awareness about domestic workers’ rights in Bhayander,” Hande said.
She, along with over four lakh women across India, is a member of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWM). On Friday, Hande, along with half-a-dozen household helps, interacted with Queen Mathilde discussing issues faced by them, and labour laws. Gloria Nunes, another domestic help from Bhayander, said they now use a rate card specifying salary for different household chores and mandatory leaves, to work in Bhayander. “It feels good to see that a king and a queen are interested in safeguarding our rights,” she says. Wearing a newly bought red sari, she discussed with the Queen, how her life had changed after joining the domestic workers’ movement.
Started in 1985 in Mumbai initially as a small movement to support domestic workers, NDWM, founded by Belgium-born Jeanne Davos who has been working for the rights of domestic helps in India, now has presence in 17 states.
“It is important to have minimum wages for domestic workers, to give them rights to maternity and sick leaves and security against abuse,” said Jeanne Davos, 82. A Union Labour Ministry’s draft proposal mandates minimum wage, maternity benefits and access to health insurance for maids. But Davos says the government process has been extremely slow. “The Indian child labour laws were amended in 2014 to allow children to work in family enterprises. That has encouraged families to employ children as household helps. India has still not ratified the Domestic Workers Convention 189 to which it was signatory,” she said.
The NDWM works to bring legislations to secure the rights of household helps, prevent trafficking and migration, and safeguard children who form part of the domestic workforce. They hold group meetings of domestic workers to make them aware of their rights. In Mumbai, the movement has actively worked to help several household helps who were falsely accused of theft or abused at work.
“Many Belgians come to India fascinated by the country and its people. We are grateful to Sister Jeanne for her positive energy and work. She came here to work for domestic workers’ movement,” King Philippe said.
The event where the king and queen met domestic workers and their children, saw girls from Bharatnagar slums performing a skit and singing for them in Marathi.
Having done an online search on the king and the queen, Shyam Jaiswal, 13, son of domestic help in Andheri, said he has been tracking news of their arrival in India since two days. “I never met a king. I have prepared a whole speech. I don’t know if they’ll let me talk for so long,” he laughs.
He knows about child labour laws. “Child labour under 14 is banned. But so many children work. I am lucky to be able to go to school.” The Belgian King also attended a Cleantech Summit, where solutions for smart cities were discussed. Manoj Kumar, additional secretary in the ministry of housing and urban affairs, who was present, said that urban areas are proving to be vibrant centres but the issue of livability in these in the short term and sustainability in the long term remain, and need to be resolved through strengthening of partnerships with others in the world including Belgium.