by Lavanya Nott
It is a weekday afternoon in early October. About fifteen women ranging in age from about twenty to sixty gather in a small two-room office in Jaynagar in South Bangalore. This is Dussera season, and on this day of the festival, it is customary to worship one’s work tools, so the women have brought along buckets and mops. They are here for a meeting, but before it begins, one woman performs a small puja, and another distributes sweets.
This is the Executive Committee of the domestic workers’ union that operates under the umbrella of Stree Jagruti Samiti (SJS), a non-governmental organization based in Bangalore, India and formed by long-time women’s rights activist Geeta Menon. The group is fighting for the rights and welfare of those in the unorganized sector.
The women gathered for the Executive Committee sing praises of the union, giving it credit for educating them on their rights. One woman, Saraswati, talks about how, after her involvement with the union, she is able to state her own terms and conditions to potential employers before being hired, thus tilting the power dynamic more in her favour. The women tell the story of a fellow union member Shaila, who was wrongfully accused of theft. Shaila was thrown out of her employers’ house, and was standing at their gate, crying, when Vonamma, the president of the Executive Committee, and other members of the union came to support her.
Vonamma was able to articulate to the employers that if they were intent on firing Shaila, they would have to make an official police complaint and find some evidence of her guilt. The employers finally gave in, admitting that there had been no theft. Shaila was unable to keep the job, but she was able to retain her pride and her employer was made to apologize. It seems like the community that the union has helped build among these women has been a major driving force for their strength—both collectively and individually. The women have been inspired by one another, and are learning from each other’s experiences.
Vonamma was seven years old when she began domestic work. Born in Bangalore, her father died very soon after her birth. Her mother—also a domestic worker—was left with the task of raising eight children. None of them received an education, and as a result, they also joined the workforce. Vonamma toiled away in a kitchen, standing on a stool that would raise her small figure to the kitchen counter, and was beaten by her employers when she displayed tiredness. Now she is twenty-nine, is unmarried, and lives with her mother. On this afternoon, she is cheerful and animated, and leads the proceedings when the meeting commences.
The Executive Committee is elected during the union’s general body elections. Women are recruited to the union through intensive fieldwork: SJS goes directly to the places where they live and work. Menon says, “The first step is to recognize that these places are no longer just slums, but labour colonies.” Most of the women in the union live in slums, and SJS’s work involves recognizing that these urban spaces are not merely dwelling places, but sources of labour, and that these women are economic entities. Making an effort to move on from thinking of slums merely as the residences of these women is making the effort to recognize the work that these women do—including daily labour in their own homes, in their capacities as wives, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law, caretakers, and as women living on the economic margins.
Hailing from various parts of South India, the shared characteristic among the women of SJS is a lack of education and skills. Most only went through a few years of school. For instance, Rajeshwari, the Secretary of the union, was pulled out of school at age fifteen. While this lack of education severely hampers the women’s social and economic mobility, Rajeshwari says that working with the unions has undone some of that for many of the women. They are in many ways more empowered to stand up for themselves and preserve their dignity. Saraswati, a member of the union, says that most of the women state their own terms and conditions to future employers, and inform them of their involvement with the union. It appears that being unionized has given these women a greater sense of self and belonging—some larger context and perspective from which to think about the work that they do and their legitimate, economic contributions to their communities.
Rajeshwari works for two families in Mantri Elegance, one of many colossal high-rise apartment buildings that have sprouted in Bangalore in the past two decades. These high rises house Bangalore’s ever-expanding upper-middle class—a generation of young software professionals nurtured and supported by Bangalore’s IT-dominated economy and representative of India’s growing neoliberal practices of large-scale consumerism and capitalism. The great influx of money that this economy has created has given this professional middle class that much more spending potential, leading to a greater demand for domestic help.
While most of the women have resigned themselves to lives in the informal sector—lives that, in all probability, will continue to be on the margins of Bangalore’s society and economy, they seem determined to fight for the rights and dignities they deserve, and more so, for happier lives for their children. The most difficult step in this movement appears to be the translation of these dreams of respectable wages, regular bonuses, and workplace dignity into reality. Two factors stand out more clearly than others as hindrances to the fulfillment of these dreams: firstly, the oppression and mistreatment of domestic workers is firmly embedded in Indian middle-class society’s psyche, and much of the struggle for these women’s rights depends on some level of malleability on the part of their employers. Secondly, there is a sense of inertia among the women when it comes to taking larger steps forward, especially with regard to their own literacy and education. Solving these problems—for example, mobilizing these women to participate in adult education programs of some sort—however, is an expensive, resource-consuming endeavor.
Geeta Menon has been working with women in the unorganized sector for over two decades on issues of community and personal relevance, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment. Her long engagement with women’s rights activism led her to form SJS in 2009. Now, the union comprises some three hundred women from the cities of Bangalore, Mangalore, and Belgaum, and provides a concrete platform from which the women can carry out their activities, which have included demands for higher wages, paid leave during festivals, and holiday bonuses. In recent years, the union has begun to work more on recruiting migrant live-in workers and child domestic workers—two of the most vulnerable and invisible communities within this already marginalized demographic. Menon says that the union is also starting to work on issues of sex trafficking and sexual assault. As a result of the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008, the union is now recognized by the National Social Security Board, which Menon says is a step in the right direction.
Higher wages, paid leave, and access to resources and community are some of the main things that SJS seeks to help these women gain, but the foundation for all of these goals involves giving these women a sense of self. Menon says, “Society does not look at these women as workers, so a big step is to look at them as workers, give them an identity, and ask the government to also officially recognize them as workers, to recognize the work that they do.” As workers in the informal sector, where they are performing duties that they are already traditionally bidden to perform in their households, their work goes unregarded and unvalued by their own communities, and thus often by themselves.
It has proven difficult to eradicate this deep-rooted devaluation of their own work, but the union’s effectiveness is dependent on the women’s recognition of themselves as economic entities, with fundamental rights in their workplaces and households. This is regarded by SJS as the first step towards effective organizing.
Due to the lack of a common or shared workplace, the only way in which these workers can strike is by doing so simultaneously at individual worksites–strategies such as mass walk-outs are not available to them. Domestic workers striking are thus liable to face different consequences than, say, factory workers organizing a mass strike. In many ways, these women are more vulnerable–as individuals with personal (usually informal) contracts with their employers, they have no larger framework of rules, regulations, or rights to draw from, and no immediate support in their places of work. The women’s ability to effectively demand their rights thus depends almost entirely on their own willingness to stand up for themselves to their respective employers, and herein lies the union’s main responsibility: to build up the confidence of these women, and to encourage them to take charge of their lives. Menon says, “A lot of the success is dependent on the women’s strength.” Last year the members of the union fought for bonuses during Diwali, and seventy-two out of the three hundred who appealed to their employers were successful.
The nature of SJS’s work—and of the larger movement to organize domestic workers—is particularly complex because of the position of these women at the intersection of multiple vulnerabilities: economic, caste-based, and social. Menon says,“Stree Jagruti Samiti isn’t just a women’s organization—our work is done in the context of a larger framework, and is based on a secular, democratic perspective.” This larger framework and perspective gives SJS the ability to work on issues that are fundamental to the increased social and economic mobility of women in the unorganized sector. By focusing on slowly chipping away at the systemic oppression of these women, it aims to lessen their vulnerability at their homes, at their workplaces, and in their communities, where they are often subjected to domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment in many forms.
SJS faces problems typically encountered by organizations attempting to organize workers in the informal sector: the absence of a unifying workplace; downward pressure on wages because of a large supply of unskilled workers in the domestic sector; and the apathy and indifference of the government. The struggle for recognition from the state continues even after legislations such as the Unorganized Social Security Act of 2008 and the Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act from 2013. There is still no comprehensive national legislation that determines the terms of employment and fair working conditions for domestic workers. Religious and ethnic divisions also prevent the formation of a broad, class-based unity.
It is the most vulnerable women that continue to be unreachable to unions and activists, despite the fact that they are most often in need of rehabilitation and empowerment. For example, fifty-five-year-old Hanifa, a domestic worker who is not a member of Stree Jagruti Samiti, and who has never been a part of a collective or union, fits the demographic for the kind of woman that organizations like SJS are trying very hard to reach out to—but are hindered in their attempts by centuries of caste, class, and communal barriers. She belongs to a Muslim family that migrated to North Bangalore from neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh two generations previously. Hanifa worked in the garments industry until twenty years ago, after which she has been working for various families on the campus of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. She is now very much an establishment on the campus—her face and family are familiar to most, and she has close personal relationships with many members of the community. As a child, she attended school until she was fifteen, and is literate in English. Not one of her five children, however, has been educated. Her daughters are also domestic workers and her sons are partially unemployed. “My husband wasn’t present,” she says, “I had no choice but to move around. I couldn’t give them an education.”
Hanifa’s situation highlights two points: one, the vulnerability of women like her, who can be dismissed at the employer’s whim. Several of her long-term employers fired her after her daughter was found stealing jewelry from a household in the neighborhood. Now, with a much-reduced income, Hanifa struggles to support her adult children, who have no work.
Second, that a lifetime of work has not enabled her to educate her children, who therefore remain a part of the same low income, informal workforce, thus repeating the cycle of deprivation and marginality. Hanifa is an example of a member of the informal workforce who would greatly benefit from being organized by unions like SJS. The resources, independence, and community that working with a union would provide her with could perhaps enable her to step out of this cycle–as a Muslim woman, she is already a member of a disempowered minority group, and as a single mother in a low-income household, she is particularly vulnerable, but it is also these factors that leave her still out of reach of unions like SJS. Organizing efforts have yet to extract women like her from this sort of self-perpetuating pattern of deprivation and lack of resources.
The issues that organizations such as SJS are battling raise questions around how grassroots organizing can boost collective power and gain results for individual workers in the domestic work industry. Even outside of these larger structural issues, the struggle for the rights and welfare of women in the workforce is rife with obstacles. Within Bangalore, SJS is limited to two or three neighborhoods; this limited scope considerably constrains the union’s potential. More importantly, traditional trade union federations such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the All India Trade Union Congress, and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Shangh have been largely indifferent towards the plight of women domestic workers. These large trade unions are characterized predominantly by male membership, are historically tuned to addressing the organized workforce, are often tied to political parties, and struggle to incorporate within their scope the issues of informal work in general, and a feminine workforce in particular.
This invisibility of women in the labour movement is common, and not specific to domestic work, although these women suffer from a particular kind of invisibility–as domestic workers, they are expected to neither be seen or heard. Other unions in the city are working with women in need of organizing and empowerment; for example, Munnade, a women’s union aligned to Bangalore’s Garments and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), represents women workers in the export oriented ready-made garment industry, which uses a predominantly female workforce. Women in this sector are largely first generation migrants, footloose, and wary of union-related activities, and thus both GATWU and Munnade have faced serious challenges in mobilizing this workforce. There is considerable overlap between domestic and garment workers—the latter often switch to domestic work, which is seen to be less physically draining, and the former aspire to become factory workers in the garments sector. Some of their struggles could be solved by bringing together unions from both sectors. A collective battle for women in the unorganized sector will likely be a necessary step in the struggle for broader unity in the female workforce.
Lavanya Nott is from Bangalore, lives in West Philadelphia, and is a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She spends her time reading, writing, and organizing around labor and economic justice in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.