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After Kolkata Organisation Given Trade Union Status, Domestic Workers Take To Streets For Their Rights (Image: ActionAid India via Facebook)


When domestic workers of Mahagun Moderne housing complex in Noida protested against their employers in July last year, it showed that many of India’s progressive housing societies were indulging in huge human rights violation of their domestic helps. Now, a week after Paschim Banga Griha Paricharika Samiti (PGPS-West Bengal Domestic Workers Society), an organisation fighting for the rights of domestic workers was granted trade union status, another such protest brought Kolkata streets to a halt.

As reported by the Hindu, PGPS was granted a trade union certificate by the government in what was seen as a step forward in securing basic rights for domestic workers. Domestic workers are still an unorganized work sector in India and crimes against the workers are hardly reported.

PGPS was the first organisation of domestic workers to be granted trade union status in West Bengal. A week later, on 22 June 2018, a protest gathering of about 2000 domestic workers under the leadership of PGPS marched from Sealdah railway station to Rani Rashmoni Road in Kolkata demanding a set of basic rights.

Some of the demands put forward by the protesters speak volumes about the exploitation that has been taking place in Indian households. As reported by the Indian Express, workers demanded that they be paid a minimum hourly wage of Rs 54. They demanded that they be granted the right to use toilets in the houses they work in. This once again revealed the casteist practice of not allowing the helps to use the toilets that they themselves are made to clean as part of their ‘work.’

Other demands included four days off per month, paid maternity leave, pension, proper employment contracts, a welfare board and crèches for children. The workers submitted a deputation to the chief minister’s office at the state secretariat after the march.

India has a huge number of domestic workers and the crimes on them go unreported most of the time because of the lack of organised bodies to take them up. Human rights violation in the workplace is obscenely high yet the country has not seen many uprisings by the workers. The Noida incident was one of the very few and therefore grabbed attention of the media.

Domestic workers are mostly underpaid as proven by the demand from Kolkata of a minimum wage of Rs.54 per hour. There are no set of regulations that protect the workers from exploitation and they are often asked to work round the clock, are not allowed to take days off work even in case of emergencies.

Speaking to the Indian Express, Bibha Naskar, the president of the Samity and a domestic worker for the past 13 years, said that they were often given stale food and leftovers by their employers.

In many households, domestic helps are abused physically and verbally. Sexual harassment is rampant. The only law that protects domestic workers from sexual harassment is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, the rules of which are ignored even in big universities and workplaces. Furthermore, the Act does not cover atrocities apart from sexual harassment at workplace.

It was in May 2017 that Soni Kumari, a domestic worker from Jharkhand was murdered by her employers after she asked for her wages. Kumari was a minor and a tribal and had been trafficked to Delhi to make her work as a domestic help. The Noida incident had also brought to light the practice of accusing domestic helps of theft if they asked for a raise.

The Wire had reported that domestic workers in urban Delhi while looking out for employment, are often asked questions about their caste and religion and that Muslims are usually not hired. The workers are asked to carry their ID cards and are frisked on a daily basis while they receive no information regarding their employers.

As cited by journalist Tripti Lahiri in her book ‘Maid in India,’ census data show that women constitute over two-thirds of the workforce in this unorganised sector, which also includes chauffeurs and security guards. Female domestic workers usually come from India’s least-developed regions, such as Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Assam.

According to the Hindu report, PGPS had to fight a protracted battle just to obtain a trade union status. Now, ahead of them lies the task of securing basic rights and dignity for themselves at their workplaces.

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