Millennium Post

When home is a bitter world

A new study on female part-time domestic workers in Delhi has argued that we need a strong rethink of the concept of home in order to substantially improve the work conditions and bring dignity to millions of domestic workers in India. The home has to be understood as a composite thing – at once private, at once workspace – to set in motion an urgently needed country-wide legislation in India that would regulate and develop this mostly unorganized labour sector.

Sonal Sharma, in his study Reversing the Gaze: Home as a ‘Spatial Category’ from Domestic Workers' Lens submitted to Ambedkar University, Delhi earlier this year, argues that once we recognize home also as a workspace, different claims for work-conditions, basic amenities, number of leaves, minimum-wages and dignity at work for domestic workers can be made not simply as recommended policy but as a legally binding right.

Even as thousands of domestic workers get ready to gather in the national capital on July 31st next week to submit their petition on ‘Enactment of Comprehensive Legislation for Domestic Workers’ to the Parliament, their demands are buttressed by the ILO Convention on ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers’ (2011) that makes significant recommendations, similar to the ones Indian domestic workers are demanding, including safe working conditions, protection from abuse, access to basic provisions like food, water and toilets and recognizing home as a workspace so that domestic workers, Sharma highlights, ‘like other workers’ can function in a safe and healthy environment.
Homes employing domestic workers are tricky spaces.

Their role is always dual. For the employer, that built environment signals an ‘inside’ of shelter and care, a place of rest and relationships, and yet it also plays host to an array of other kinds of non-private relationships and claims, foremost of which is that of domestic workers. For the domestic worker, who always ambiguously straddles this ‘inside’, it is primarily a place of work. In India however, Sharma argues, almost all domestic work does not even get recognized as ‘work’ and the concomitant professional dignity and claims are denied to the workers in the name of an always double-edged personalism whereby domestic workers are ‘like one’s own’ without ever effectively being one.

Most of the female part-time workers interviewed by Sharma tell us what goes wrong when work is not seen as work. Instead of any kind of accountability, social prejudices around one’s gender, one’s caste status, and one’s class position are given full swing to considerably compromise the relationship between the employer and the workers, and indeed, among the workers themselves. Access to what would be considered basic amenities in any other line of work, here depends on the whimsy of the employer and sometimes that of the other workers.

In Sharma’s study, besides concerns over work-hours, monthly leaves and surveillance, some of the most glaring issues appear in relation to availability of water, food and toilets. All of which add to the experience of indignity in domestic work.

Kala, a 35 year old Tamil migrant in Delhi, told Sharma that ‘I do not use toilet in every home. There are only 2-3 homes where I use toilet. In other homes, I do not ask for permission, especially in a Tamil household, as she [the employer] will judge me. I never use toilet at their home. (laughs in embarrassment) and, I also do not drink much water’. Sharma argues that domestic workers have to constantly negotiate the ‘inside’ of the house where their basic claims as workers – of toilet, food or water – most often clash with the arrangements of privacy and entrenched ideas of caste ‘purity’ and hygiene of the employer, and at-times even of other workers.

Moreover Sharma makes it clear that different workers tend to experience the same workplace differently and, depending on their own social positions, they have unequal claims to it in relation to each other, let alone the employer. Vimla, a 55 year old who is Balmiki (SC) by caste, who cleans homes, including bathrooms, in Delhi’s posh New Friends colony and works in multi-storeyed homes which employ 8-9 workers told Sharma that ‘we [she and her daughter] do our work and come back. There’s no warmth in the relationships with other [full time, live-in] workers. The feeling that we work for the same employer is just not there. They do not feel like giving me anything to eat despite I also work like them in the same house. They eat and share amongst each other. Nobody offers anything to us.’ Vimla ‘shares in a low voice’ with Sharma ‘that if she goes to work hungry and asks any of the full-time or live-in workers to give her something to eat, or if she is having a headache and asks for a tea, the other workers would never give her anything’.

Discrimination on the basis on caste appears with painful regularity in Sharma’s study. Lesser paid, ‘dirty’ and strenuous tasks are often apportioned to lower caste workers, who are then not allowed to do works such as cooking or baby-care - or even enter the kitchen to drink water - that are mostly meant for upper-caste workers. The unorganized nature of the sector ensures that social prejudices around caste and illegal discrimination based on it remain entrenched practices among employers and workers. A fear of one’s safety informs the work choices of several workers in Sharma’s study, who then try and find patterns along which a ‘safe’ house can be ascertained. Presence of other women in the employing household assumes significance in this regard. Often though, the worker's own husband would have problems with her working in an all-male household and would try and curtail her movements on this basis. Women's relationship to paid labour then is almost never neutral and gets informed with what labour counts as suitable and 'decent' for their gender.

Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirmala Niketan, formed in 1998 by the tribal girls from Jharkhand, working as full-time, in-house domestic workers in Delhi, and the Coordinator of National Campaign Committee for Unorganised Sector Workers, argues that what is needed in India is a ‘law specifically addressing domestic workers…because [their] working conditions...are unique’ Like Sharma, he points out the duality of the idea of the home. ‘The place of work,’ for domestic workers, he says, ‘is the private house of a family.

Unless the house is recognised as a place of work - an establishment - no legislation can be implemented properly to safeguard the interest of domestic workers.’ He sees the employer-employee relationship in domestic work as ‘fluid’, in which, he additionally notes, most of the in-house domestic workers are young unmarried girls from tribal and other communities of migrant workers, including children below the age of 14 years (40 per cent). There is no 'management' as such in domestic work. Therefore, the legislations that have been drafted for the organised sector’ in India on provident fund, on insurance and on migrant labour cannot yet be implemented here despite the strong need to do so.

Sharma’s study makes it very clear that India needs a comprehensive legislation on domestic work soon. In order to ensure full dignity to the workers along material lines such as wages and access to basic provisions, psychological lines such as assurance of respect and safety and social lines, that is, without caste and gender discrimination, we need to hear more carefully to what the workers say about negotiating their domestic workspace on daily basis.
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