As in any other city, scores of women in Pune step out of their homes each morning, ring the doorbell of another household and begin their daily duties of sweeping, mopping, washing clothes and utensils, dusting furniture, chopping vegetables, cooking entire meals, baby-sitting, and so on. Like their counterparts elsewhere, these domestic workers too are categorised under the umbrella of 'unorganised labour'. But this description may be getting a little less accurate. In Pune, these women have unionised themselves into a registered organisation that looks after their service conditions, their pay packets, and even their post-employment status.
The domestic workforce almost always finds itself excluded from labour welfare laws and activities that look after important employment-related issues such as conditions of work, wages, social security, provident funds, old age pensions, and maternity leaves. Though the Indian government's Ministry of Labour has adopted legislative measures for social security and welfare of unorganised workers, these if at all effected, are typically applicable to those employed in agriculture, construction, trade, transport, and communication; domestic workers are left out.
But that does not mean domestic workers do not face similar concerns to those employed in these other professions. In its Annual Report, 2001-2002, the Ministry of Labour cites certain problems specific to unorganised workers. These problems - viz. no formal employer-employee relationship, lack of organisation, poor bargaining power, low legislative protection, and inadequate welfare measures - can be cited as the major impediments in the assurance of a minimum working lifestyle for all unorganised work, including in the domestic workforce.
These encumbrances propelled the formation of the Pune Shahar Molkarin Sanghatana (Pune City Domestic Workers Association) as far back as 1980. Even at a time when support groups, the media, and a majority of the workers themselves were not paying special attention to the rights of this category of workers, these women from Pune had educated themselves in the intricacies of the problems facing domestic labour, and begun active work for their consequent correction. They got together, prepared a charter of their rights, trained a group of women to become their spokespersons, and initiated action.
The association's key view is that a woman putting in eight hours of domestic work (in one household alone, or in several together) must be regarded as a 'worker', and hence must be guaranteed the privileges and rights that industrial, construction or agricultural workers get. Towards this end, one of its significant achievements has been the establishment of a Maharashtra Government Resolution, dated August 10, 2000. This GR was the outcome of repeated demonstrations and lengthy discussions with the city and state authorities on the issue of regulating the domestic workers. While there has not been much noticeable progress since then, the GR did recognise the following as legitimate demands of the workers:
- One month's salary as Diwali bonus for workers who have been employed for a minimum of one year.
- Medical expenses of the workers to be shared by the employers.
- Annual increment in salary to be made mandatory.
- A fortnight's paid leave for those women employed full-time so that they can visit their home towns, and travel expenses to be shared by employers.
"However, nothing further happened," states Megha Thatte, secretary of the association. "The state government did announce that a labour board should be set up, with representatives from the government, domestic workers, NGOs, but nothing has materialised so far. In fact, the central government has also talked of a sort of pilot project in three districts in Maharashtra as a step toward regulating the domestic workforce all over the country, but we are unable to ascertain the veracity of such talk," she adds.
Meanwhile the organisation continues with its work. On its own, it has fixed rates for housework, and ensures that these conditions are met by the employers of its members in Pune. It intervenes in the event of altercations between employers and workers. "We have had instances when employers want to kick their help out, and so falsely accuse her of thefts, and call the police in. Some such victims have been in police custody, have had to pay fines and even bribes to police staff to be let out. They are often beaten both by the employers and police, and in the face of such ill treatment, we have to step in. But before we do so, we first do our own spadework to check the genuineness of the member's complaint," insists Vandana Vange, one of its current office-bearers.
On May 1, 2000 the Pune Shahar Molkarin Sanghatana made public a pay structure for domestic work. It reads as follows:
- Washing clothes and utensils (one person) - Rs. 100 per month.
- Sweeping and mopping (one room) - Rs. 60 per month.
- Cooking one entire meal (four persons) - Rs. 800 per month.
- Diwali bonus - one month's salary.
- Four weekly offs per month; 20 privileged leaves per year.
- Extra wages for guests, Diwali cleaning, chopping vegetables, cleaning bathrooms, and any other extra chores.
- If the employer terminates services, he must pay the worker gratuity. Gratuity is calculated as 15 days of salary of every year of service.
While not everything may be this picture perfect, the association has definitely been instrumental in ushering in improvement in the conditions of the domestic workers. With the support of the association, they have greater bargaining power with their employers. "The pay structure and the leave arrangement now have a formal standard structure, hence there is no haggling, and nothing has been left to the whims and fancies of the employers. The domestic worker is no longer just a helpless soul, she has thousands backing her in times of need, and the knowledge of this protection is enough to make her strong too," reiterates Vange.
A feisty woman of 40 or so, Vange heads most of the protest marches led by the association, interacts with police officials and lawyers on legal matters, intervenes on behalf of the members with their employers, and mobilises new members from all corners of the city. This transformation, she insists, from a shy worker who couldn't even ask for her salary to be paid on time, is all courtesy the training and confidence-boosting by the senior members of the association.
Tracing the origins of the Sanghatana, she says that even before 1980, a section of the domestic workers in Pune had been pondering their status, unhappy with their situation. They were thinking on the lines of a union, but had no clue how to organise one or run it. In 1979 came the incident that accelerated matters. A woman, working in the traditionally upper-class Prabhat Road area in Pune, was severely beaten by her employer for absenteeism. What started as a protest by 20-25 workers from that area spread to the neighbouring localities, and over 150 women poured out in support.
"That was when Kerkar, one of our colleagues, advised us to unite into a proper organisation, which would work on some proactive measures for our lot" says Vange. "We didn't know anything about a union, but we learned as we moved on - learned how to organise a strike, how to present our demands, how to muster up more support," she continues. The women would meet after 10 pm, and gradually the numbers grew. A year later, the official version of the Pune Shahar Molkarin Sanghatana came into being. Today, with its strength of over 10,000, the association has become a force to reckon with. In order to have its demands met, it has held meetings of domestic workers, repeatedly protested outside the Pune Municipal Corporation, met various corporators to lobby for protective legislation, and along with similar organisations from elsewhere in the state, has even marched onto the Mantralaya in Mumbai.
The association has not rested easy with the GR of 2000. The members are now working on issues such as a minimum of Rs. 2,500 per month as living wages in return for their eight hours of work, along with some post-employment assurances like gratuity. For this, they have prepared detailed handbills outlining their demands, conduct awareness campaigns, and keep themselves updated with the authorities. Judging by their professional approach to the protection of their rights, these women certainly cannot be called 'unorganised' from any point of view. Having begun to see themselves as real workers with real rights, and after winning a few battles to convince others of this view, they can look ahead to more success in their quest for a living wage and fair working conditions.