Bangalore's domestic workers have paved new pathways in gaining recognition and rights

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager
Bangalore, 1 May 2015

It's not uncommon for a household in India to employ multiple — even up to a half-dozen — domestic workers. In fact, there are an estimated 4.2 million domestic workers in the country, according to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). These millions of cooks, maids, and sweepers — most of whom are women — work behind the closed doors of individual family employers, where they work for low wages, often seven days a week, with little ability to negotiate. The isolation of their work makes changing their circumstances challenging. But India's domestic workers unions have been fighting tirelessly to bring about policy change and better conditions for decades now.

In Karnataka, the home state of Bangalore, domestic workers' unions have come together to make their voices and needs heard. In 2011, for example, women from the Karnataka Domestic Workers' Movement took to the streets to demand at least one day off in a week. They've also sought official recognition for their work, medical coverage, and protection from physical and sexual harassment. These needs are echoed by domestic workers' unions around the country.

The rally cries of Bangalore's domestic workers have pushed the state to take action. Karnataka was one of the first states to institute a minimum wage for domestic workers and set better working conditions. Setting a minimum wage was a big step in calling for the women to earn a livable wage, but as importantly, the official wage requirements also meant that domestic labor gained official validation in state-sanctioned labor laws. Karnataka's moves have since spurred other states to set minimum wages for domestic workers.

While the laws have been progressive in their vision, they have "failed to yield even a single complaint since they were instituted six years ago," according to a recent article.

Shalini Sinha, a homebased worker expert at WIEGO, says that simply having a law does not ensure the protection of workers, particularly those in such isolated environments. She says that one of the barriers is that domestic workers often are uninformed about the laws. More awareness is needed to empower domestic workers to know their rights. Further, says Sinha, the women fear consequences for reporting employers, which could result in loss of income or work. She says that better redress processes could make domestic workers feel more comfortable reporting their grievances.

"Building visibility and voice is critical for domestic workers. They need to build organizations and collectively bargain for their rights," says Sinha. The challenge is, with whom do they bargain? "There is an absence of an employer collective. Residence welfare societies could be one, but they aren't ready to take on this role."

The ripple effect of widespread awareness raising and organizing among domestic workers came together in 2011. At the 100th International Labor Conference in Geneva, domestic workers and their organizations' four-year effort to gain better working conditions was adopted into the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers and accompanying Recommendation. The efforts on both a local and international level show the power of a collective vision and goal — one that domestic workers in India need to continue to strive for to gain full recognition and protection.

Photo credit: Herry Lawford

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