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The domestic workers of silicon city

By Kathyayini Chamaraj

The struggle of domestic workers in Karnataka for decent wages and work conditions is two decades old. But even at the prescribed minimum wage, the average domestic worker's wages are insufficient even to cover the food needs of the average family, let alone other needs, forcing women and girls to work seven days a week in multiple homes

A conversation between two women techies overheard in the dining hall of a software company in Bangalore : “Good heavens, why are you paying your maid Rs 1,000 per month? I pay mine only Rs 300.” This, in a city where couples in the software industry often earn upwards of Rs 1 lakh per month. The divide between the two Indias is sharply evident at this intimate interface between the haves and the have-nots, between employer and employee within a home.

Domestic workers in India usually work seven days a week, 365 days a year. In most cases, leave, if any, is granted grudgingly and is usually unpaid. “We are not given even a Sunday off. They never give us any annual leave either and say that we are absenting ourselves if we take even a day off now and then to attend to our work,” Savithri, who works in a well-to-do home, says. Shakuntala, also a domestic worker, says: “They don't give us even one day's paid leave when we are ill or tired and need a break.” “Several days before and on festivals we have to work extra hard to enable these families to celebrate the festival in style. But they never think that we too have extra work in our homes during festivals,” Lizzy says.

Others speak of how wages are fixed for a certain amount of work, but employers keep adding to the tasks. When the workers protest, they retort: “Aren't we giving you tea and coffee even though it was not agreed upon?” One worker says: “When they have parties, we stay late and wash the vessels until the last one is done, for which they never pay extra. But when we ask for a day's leave because we have a function in our house, they cut our wages.” Saroja of Ragigudda slum says: “They eat fine food kept in the fridge but give us food that has been left outside uncovered, which turns stale before we reach home. They drink fresh tea and coffee but give us tea and coffee made by re-boiling used leaves and dregs.” Geeta says: “They spend more on the colas they drink than they give us to run our whole family. God has given them so much, but still they would rather exchange their old clothes for a steel vessel than give them to us.”

Many workers speak of the separate plate and tumbler kept for them; how they are not allowed to touch the vessels in which the employers' food is kept; how some women employers wash all the vessels washed by the maids once more with tamarind to ‘purify' them; how the maids are not supposed to enter the kitchen or puja room. Caste prejudices remain as strong as ever. Hamsavalli says: “We clean all their dirt, but they don't want to be touched by us.” Manjula adds: “Our employers don't trust us even after we have worked 10 years for them. If we were really thieves, we could have robbed their houses long ago.”

Domestic workers need to be recognised as workers and treated in a humane and dignified manner, insists Sister Celia, who started the Domestic Workers' Trade Union. The major demand of the workers of this Union and of the Stree Jagruthi Samiti (SJS), both in Bangalore , is higher wages. Rukminiamma, now 53, began working 43 years ago for Rs 25 per month. She reached the princely wage of Rs 300 per month only recently. Working in one home does not pay enough, and many domestic workers are caught in a daily whirl trying to work in four-five homes to make ends meet.

The arduous struggle of domestic workers in Karnataka for decent wages and working conditions is now 20 years old. Domestic work was included in Karnataka under the Schedule of the Minimum Wages Act in 1992 and then slyly removed in 1993. Fresh struggles ensured its inclusion once more in 2001 and, in a pioneering measure in India , wages were fixed in March 2004. But a study done by the SJS finds that the wages are unnecessarily complex, confusing and inadequate. The minimum wage notification specifies the following for a six-day week: any one task for 45 minutes per day should receive Rs 249, one hour tasks, Rs 299, and an 8-hour day Rs 1,699 (all per month); 10% more for families larger than four persons, and overtime at double the rate.

The study found that the assumptions of 45 minutes per task and a six-day week were incorrect. Due to the varying rates prescribed, it was possible for the employer to calculate the wages in three different ways and arrive at Rs 1,006, Rs 805 and Rs 572 per month as wages for the same two hours of work a day! The SJS study recommends that the minimum wage should be easy to understand, time-based and adequate, and it makes the case for an hourly wage to simplify the calculation. The study also demands social security and a tripartite board of representatives of the government, employers and workers.

The most damning finding of the study is that the current minimum wage has thrown to the winds the criteria enunciated by the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) and the Supreme Court -- that a minimum wage for eight hours of work should be high enough to cover all the basic needs of the worker, her/his spouse and two children. The minimum wage of Rs 1,600 (Rs 53 per day) fixed by the Karnataka government was insufficient even to cover the food needs of the average family, let alone other needs.

The SJS study says that the average monthly expenditure of a domestic worker's family living in a slum in Bangalore is Rs 5,189, out of which Rs 1,959 is spent on food, Rs 817 on loan repayments, Rs 555 as rent, and the rest for other needs. Geeta Menon of the SJS, says: “The wages paid are not high enough to cover food, housing, medical expenses and educational needs.”

The earnings of a domestic worker, however, even after working for eight hours a day every day, with no day off, no holidays, and no sick pay, could bring in just over a third of average family expenditure, if she was paid according to the current minimum wage notification. Because even this is mostly not paid, the domestic worker's earnings cover just one-quarter of the expenditure needs of the family, the SJS study found. Two-thirds of families had three or more earners, including children, to support the family's basic needs. In over two-thirds of cases, a loan had been taken. The average income of the entire family was still only Rs 4,267 per month, a shortfall of Rs 900, which was probably met through more loans.

The survey found that an employer earning Rs 30,000 per month got away by paying just 1% of his/her earnings for domestic help. Despite this, many employers refuse to pay minimum wages by saying that they cannot afford to pay such ‘high' wages to their maids. Others claim that such levels of wages may apply to the West, where labour-saving devices are cheap. Still others maintain that the government should not intervene by fixing a minimum wage in what is a mutually beneficial private relationship between the employer and the domestic worker -- after all, they say, the maid is taking up the job at a rate acceptable to her. Fixing a minimum wage, they say, will stop many from employing maids and will make many maids lose even the little that they are earning.

But the Supreme Court has shot down such arguments in various cases on minimum wages by ruling that minimum wages apply to all alike, and have to be paid irrespective of the kind of establishment, capacity to pay and availability of worker at lower wages, that the “employer has no right to conduct his enterprise if he cannot pay his employee a minimum subsistence wage,” and that non-payment of minimum wages is forced labour under Article 23 of the Constitution. Studies have shown that the availability of employment does not depend on the level of wages and that lowering wages does not necessarily lead to a higher employment rate.

Though the Supreme Court had endorsed the 15th ILC recommendation that a single earner should be able to support a family comprising spouse and two children, the domestic workers of Stree Jagruthi Samiti are currently only demanding an increase in the minimum wage, from Rs 1,600 to Rs 2,600 per month (50% of actual need). The ‘silicon plateau' that is Bangalore needs to do much better for its domestic workers, who, as the earlier quoted study estimates, contribute at least Rs 467 million per month to the economy.

(Kathyayini Chamaraj is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore .  She has been writing on development issues for 20 years. She was awarded the PUCL ‘Journalism for Human Rights' award in 1998. This article is based on earlier articles by her in Deccan Herald and on indiatogether.org)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007