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Our Govt’s Disheartening Response When I Tried To Get Domestic Work Recognised As ‘Real’

NFI logoEditor’s Note: With #GoalPeBol, Youth Ki Awaaz has joined hands with the National Foundation for India to start a conversation around the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals that the Indian government has undertaken to accomplish by 2030. Let’s collectively advocate for successful and timely fulfilment of the SDGs to ensure a brighter future for our nation.

 

I am again going to the office of the Deputy Labour Commissioner (DLC) of South Delhi district today. Frankly, by now,  I am used to this never-ending ordeal. In the last two years, I have visited this office more than half a dozen times to get one simple thing done: register a union of domestic workers in the district.

In January 2016, when I first started working as a state coordinator in Delhi for NDWM (National Domestic Workers’ Movement), they refused to even accept our registration papers, saying domestic workers are not ‘officially’ recognised as workers. After a year long wait, they finally accepted the registration papers in December. I was told that they would respond once they review our file.

But, that too, didn’t happen for a while. So, we submitted proof of existence of our unions in five states and of a union of domestic workers in Delhi – all just to bolster our case. Finally, in May this year, after having run after the authorities for one and a half year, we got a response from the DLC office in writing, rejecting our application. They told us that domestic workers do not fall under the definition of ‘workmen’ according to Delhi’s laws. This, for a group of workers, who according to even government studies, ensure that your ever-growing cities remain shiny.

I still visit the office. I still get the same response. This is disheartening, but we will not stop fighting. Even if I need to go to the office a hundred times, I will.

Domestic workers protest in Delhi to demand a central law, fixed minimum wages, and the right to form a union. Credit: Special arrangement

On the surface, this ordeal may seem like a legal-procedural hurdle, but the truth is that the failure to recognise domestic workers affects lakhs of people who are a part of the profession, 2/3rds of them women. What is worse is that this has been the status quo for almost a decade now. If we continue like this, I don’t think we will be able to give decent work to all women and men even in the next decade.

Things were supposed to change with the enactment of The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008, that gave domestic workers their due recognition. But this recognition in the central act hasn’t helped, because states have failed to include domestic workers in their respective schedules of employment.

Until 2012, only 7 states had included them in the schedule. More recently, Assam, Odisha and the UT Daman and Diu have made some start in this direction. Delhi is yet to make amends – with the known registered union being called a ‘mistake’.

But why do we desperately need a union, you wonder? Let me explain by sharing two examples.

In September, we learnt about a domestic worker near Tigri area of South Delhi working at a government office.  She was not being paid her monthly salary because she had taken leave for a few days. Around five-six domestic workers with NDWM organised themselves around her and with a staff member went to negotiate with her employers. The domestic worker got her salary immediately. This is the power that an individual gets against injustice when they are part of a union or group.

Now consider another case. A domestic worker was verbally abused because she served roti to her employer on a plate that had not been wiped. She was even denied her monthly wages due to this reason. When we went to the house, the owner dared us to try and do anything we like.  But we couldn’t do anything. Because, by law, the labour department doesn’t recognize domestic work.

This is just one of the many such problems that this lack of recognition poses for domestic workers. Most of these workers are migrants who need work to survive. Since there is no contract, they are forced to accept whatever wage the employer sets, without any increment over time.

Moreover, they are assumed to be easily replaceable.  If they stop working, there are other people to take their work. If somebody needs Rs.1000, another worker would agree to work for Rs. 500. When they ask for an increment in salary, they are accused of theft and fired using similar excuses.  Apart from verbal or physical abuse, sexual harassment is also rampant, creating an unsafe working environment.

What I understand from this is that although we say India is developing, domestic workers don’t get a share of that development. In the field of domestic work, the employer doesn’t lose anything, whereas the employee risks everything. This is against the foundations of a democratic society.

Recognition of a union could change all of this. I have noticed that when unions have their own wage code, everybody stands united, and nobody goes to work with an  employer who doesn’t give them the wages they demand. After all, in Delhi, just by associating with each other, now more workers are aware that they too have rights and laws that protect them.

We have also asked the parliament to enact uniform laws across the country – instead of an unenforceable policy being formulated. Isn’t it due to this that we haven’t been able to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on decent work for domestic workers?

From the Delhi government and all those who refuse to recognize domestic work as actual work, I just want to know this – If domestic workers are not workers, who are they? If they don’t come to your house, will you be able to go to work?

As told to Abhishek Jha

Note: Among the goals for sustainable development adopted by India at the United Nations in 2015 is the goal to promote inclusive employment and decent work for all. To achieve this goal, not only does India need to provide “decent work for all women and men” by 2030, it also needs to protect labour rights and promote a safe working environment, especially for women migrants.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons, clicked by Ronaldo Lazzari. It is used for representational purposes only.
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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