Domestic workers have many economic problems which bother them but their struggles have an equally important dimension of dignity. This is particularly true of those domestic workers who are migrant workers. In Jaipur nearly 90 per cent of domestic workers are migrants. The largest number are from West Bengal, while others are from Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states.
Their status as migrant workers made them highly submissive and they simply accepted their economic exploitation as well as denial of dignity. Ramvati Chaudhary, an activist who has been involved in trying to organise them for several years says, “When I first started visiting their homes, they would simply say we do not want any sangathan-vangathan (organisation or union) and shut the door. Then I started saying I am a guest, just give me a glass of water. This gave me a small space and time.”
The wages for domestic workers differed from home to home depending on the work and time spent, but the overall rates were so low that after toiling from early morning to evening in five homes, a domestic worker still earned less than a subsistence wage as well as the legal minimum wage. These domestic workers, in their vulnerable position as domestic workers, had reconciled themselves to accepting what was being offered to them.
In addition, they had to put up with several humiliations and affronts to their dignity as a daily routine. In many homes they were not allowed to use washrooms. When a valuable went missing, all too often the domestic worker was blamed. In a case which attracted widespread attention, one domestic worker Anjali was beaten by a house owner as well as policemen on the suspicion of stealing a necklace, which was later found as it had merely been misplaced by the owner.
A senior social activist Mewa Bharti and her colleagues took up the responsibility to establish the Rajasthan Mahila Kaamgaar Union (RMKU) to organise domestic workers and assert their rights. There were many initial difficulties, not the least due to the reluctance of domestic workers themselves. Phoolbala, a worker who helped in the mobilisation process says, “Once the initial hesitation was overcome, we realised how important it is to get together to protect our rights.” Ramvati adds, “During the last decade this mobilisation process has progressed with continuity. Now workers can assert themselves to get better wages. Whenever there is any big injustice, they get together to demand justice on their own. Monthly meetings are held in various sub-areas. A large number of women get together on occasions like Women’s Day and May Day and we have cultural events as well. The festival of Diwali now brings more joy as many domestic workers have started receiving a Diwali bonus from their employees.”
This initiative to ask for a Diwali bonus was taken up with some uncertainty about its acceptance but the response of at least some employers was encouraging. This is also an indication that with the growing profile of their organisation, domestic workers have started getting more respect and their demands now have a better chance of acceptance. Media coverage of their problems and other programmes have also contributed to this recognition.
The RMKU now has about 16,500 members in Jaipur. It has also made a small beginning in two other cities – Ajmer and Alwar. While it earlier appeared difficult to organise domestic workers, within a decade it has become clear that this organisation effort was needed and has helped to bring a ray of hope to a marginalised community
An important part in this success has been played by dedicated activists like Ramvati. With achievements in higher education, she had several better opportunities but has remained committed to working with domestic workers. She says, “We also try to take up internal problems of workers’ community like domestic violence and alcoholism in their households. This has also brought considerable relief as cases of domestic violence have come down. We also provide counselling to adolescents in their families and this has given good results.”
Ramvati’s good work attracted attention and she was selected for a Democracy Fellowship. This three-year fellowship brought her in touch with several important democratic efforts to help the poor and increased her capacity in several important ways
Ramvati and her close colleagues like Phoolbala and Rahiman Bibi talk of many plans and ideas to take their work further. In the course of conversation, they express hope as well as despair, determination as well as doubts. Their achievements are considerable yet they see many problems ahead. Clearly such initiatives among the most marginalized communities need wider help from citizens’ initiatives to bring badly needed help to more people.