Among the barrage of abuses and criticisms that V K Sasikala had to face in the immediate aftermath of J Jayalalithaa’s death, one particularly stood out for its blatant insensitivity and stereotyping. In a snide reference to her humble beginnings as Jayalalithaa’s assistant, Sasikala was repeatedly called Ayah or Velaikkari (crude, disrespectful terms for domestic workers in Tamil). The multitude of voices resonated of only one message: How could someone who started out as a ‘help’ could go on to dream of becoming the Chief Minister of the State?
Such stereotyping or insensitivity is neither new in Tamil Nadu nor seen as abnormal. “It is too normal to be even noticed. Each day, there are Tamil serials that refer to domestic workers as velaikkari, or show them in derogatory manner. They remain largely unchallenged,” rues Josephine Amala Valarmathi, state convener of National Domestic Workers Movement. Advertisements are no different. From ‘madam’ deified for merely offering the ‘maid’ tea in the same kind of cup that she drinks from to ‘madam’ threatening ‘maid’ to dismiss her from work for demanding a hike just because she now has a better brand of cleaning powder, domestic workers have been repeatedly degraded and stereotyped in media.
But stereotyping is just one of the many problems that domestic workers continue to face across the country. While ILO estimates India to have more than 4 million domestic workers, Trade Unions put the number at 10 million. Rough estimates say women constitute over two-thirds of domestic work population. Most domestic workers are drawn from vulnerable communities including Tribals, Dalits and landless OBCs. Valarmathi says Tamil Nadu alone has around 1.5 million domestic workers. Yet the problems this unorganised sector face range from absence of dignity to minimum wages.
“There are no minimum wages, no paid leave and no weekly off for domestic workers. Nobody talks about their health issues. In several cases, domestic workers also face abuse at home at the hands of their husbands. Yet if they turn up slightly late for work, they will be humiliated. There is absolutely no job security. More recently, we had a complaint by an old woman in our movement who was asked to leave in a day after putting in 15 years of domestic work in a house. All she did was to demand better wages. Such sudden loss of jobs is not uncommon among domestic workers anywhere in the country,” Valarmathi says. She says the government should allot one percent of house tax for the welfare of domestic workers.
While Tamil Nadu has a separate welfare board for domestic workers, Sujata Mody of Penn Thozhilaalargal Sangam (Trade Union of Women workers) says it is still an uphill task for domestic workers in the State with no funds coming in. “It was a struggle to get domestic work included in welfare board. Now funding is a huge problem. There have been repeated demands, repeated recommendations but nothing have fructified. Since 2006 the government has systematically overlooked our demand for better wages and other issues.” Mody also points out that India is yet to ratify the 2011 ILO convention on domestic workers. In a significant move, on June 16, 2011, the ILO Convention C189 Decent Work for Domestic workers was won – which labour leaders and trade unionists across the world consider a huge and historic achievement. “But India continues to be one of the very few countries that have absolutely not put any effort to better the conditions of domestic workers. Even smaller countries have done that.”
Over the last six months, Penn Thozhilaalargal Sangam have worked towards identifying wage setting system in the absence of government taking any concrete steps to announce minimum wage. “We have held more than 100 meetings with about 800 domestic workers from across Chennai, and come up with this wage Card (attached). This study and plan was supported by the International Labour Organisation, New Delhi. It was done by domestic workers themselves” Mody says.
She also points another potential threat faced by domestic workers in Tamil Nadu. “Relocation to outskirts due to urbanisation leads to issues like loss of employment and income, long travel etc.”
Over a lakh people from various slums in Chennai were relocated to suburban Kannagi Nagar from 2000 to 2010 as part of ‘beautification of Chennai.’ Years later, several of them continue to face all kinds of hardships including loss of employment and long travels. Geetha is one among them. “After relocation, I have to travel 10 km to reach the place where I do domestic work. Considering the salary I get, it is not worth it.” Some of them from Kannagi Nagar opt to travel to other places in the city for simply because they have no other alternative. “Some of us work in more than one house. So we don’t mind the travel. But one third of what we earn, we are forced to spend on traveling. Also, we need to take two to three buses every day and it makes things worse for us at home front,” says Prema also from Kannagi Nagar.
More recently, the Cooum river restoration project in Chennai has led to relocation of people residing in the colonies of banks to Cooum river to suburbans like Gudapakkam and Navalur-Padapai. “At least thousand of our union members stand to lose their employment. Most of them work in informal and unorganised sector. We have given a petition to the Advocate Commissioner appointed by High Court in a PIL against the Cooum River Restoration Project Trust,” says Mody.
Valarmathi hopes the draft national policy for domestic workers likely to be announced anytime now will bring some change; that it will finally bring in a better day for domestic workers.
However, according to sources, the draft policy is expected to make recommendations on working hours, leave entitlements and minimum wages but would leave it to the States to notify them in accordance with their existing legislations. “The proposed policy is extremely inadequate to deal with issues of workers. It lacks direction in terms of ratifying the ILO convention, budgetary allocation and many such issues. It is a statement of concern which is very welcome but not sufficiently backed by will to change,” Mody says.
Pointing to stigmatisation of house work as women’s work in India, Mody says only effective State policy can challenge the stigmatisation. “It is a huge social issue. The patriarchal notions of the existing system wouldn’t just allow any significant change to happen. It is important to have a policy that takes into account all issues concerning women workers. The media must also change its view.”
Till then June 16 – the international domestic workers day – will remain just another gruelling day at work for the millions of invisible domestic workers.