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Domestic workers of West Bengal find new hope in trade union

Sudarshana Chakraborty | Updated on: 5 July 2018, 18:41 IST
(Sudarshana Chakraborty)

Taking a day off is not easy for Aloka Naiya, Sabita Sau, Sabitri Mistri and many doemstic workers like them – entire households go off gear without them. So, in a way it was a big deal when they took leave to attend a rally.

On 16 June, on International Domestic Workers' Day, more then 2,000 such workers hit the streets of Kolkata to celebrate the West Bengal government's recognition to Paschimbanga Griha Paricharika Samity (PGPS) as a trade union. That's a first for the state which has a history of trade union movements.

Those gathered expressed their enthusiasm with slogans like 'Amra Chhara Cholbey Na' (Can't do without us) and 'Aek hoyechhi meyer dol / Korbo ebar din bodol' (We, the gang of girls united / Would now bring about change). Curious onlookers collected leaflets as they watched the rally. 

“The recognition will make us stronger, help us get better pay and make our job secure,” Naiya said.

The movement and demands

The domestic workers’ rights movement brings together three different movements – the women’s right movement, social security movement and the unorganised sector workers’ movement.

PGPS is among several such organisations of domestic workers in West Bengal under the umbrella of Griha Shramik Adhikar Abhiyan.

The domestic workers placed 13 demands to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the state labour minister as well as some lawmakers so that those can be discussed at the Monsoon Session of the State Assembly. The demands include:

  • A minimum wage
  • Four days’ salaried leave every month
  • A fixed bonus
  • To be allowed to use toilet at workplace 
  • Stop exemption from work without notice 
  • Ensuring that there is no sexual abuse, physical torture at work place
  • Ensuring there is first aid at workplace if a domestic worker falls sick or injured 
  • Including domestic workers in the social security project by acknowledging their labor giving them the status of labourers
  • If domestic workers are included in social security project then ensuring pension for them
  • Ensuring maternal leave with a half of the minimum wage for the women domestic workers
  • Ensuring respectful behavior with domestic workers at workplace. 

The domestic workers of the city have two more demands: the constitution of a domestic workers’ welfare board and a creche for their children.

“A few of us from the organisation regularly met government officials since 2014,” Tahmina Begum, a PGPS member, said. “We submitted all information and papers they sought and have now achieved this 'trade union' status. It will be good if other organisations try. That will increase our strength.” she added.

PGPS has members from seven districts: North and South 24 Paraganas, Kolkata, Howrah, Asansol, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The recognition of PGPS as Trade Union is a step forward to the recognition of domestic workers as labourers in Bengal.

States like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odhisa, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Rajasthan already have laws fixing minimum wages for domestic workers; Kerala, Maharastra and TamilNadu have welfare boards for them; India has more than 25 lakh domestic workers, 57 per cent of them are women, according to data from the National Sample Survey (2009-10). The country does not follow regulations framed by International Labour Organization for domestic workers. This workforce is not included in social security schemes. The Centre drafted a policy, but it is yet to be legislated. 

“We are happy about PGPS becoming a trade union. Now we have to push for a welfare board, a minimum wage of Rs 54 per hour and a comprehensive legislation for domestic workers,” Anibrata Pramanik, an activist involved with Griha Shramik Adhikar Abhiyan, said.

High expectations

A domestic worker pointed out that being recognised as a union equals to being recognised as workers and help in bargaining collectively with employers. At a day-to-day level, she hoped she and her colleagues would no longer need to have her tea in broken tumblers, no more be fed stale and leftover food, not be accused of theft or humiliated otherwise, not have to face misbehaviour by employers, and would be able to work in an atmosphere free from sexual abuse.

“Our biggest demand is the minimum wage, which we are yet to achieve in our state. Also a welfare board is necessary for the wholesome development of our community. In our State Committee meeting we have discussed issues like – why it is humiliating to submit our identity cards at police station before getting a job and how to deal with the issue, written contracts, creches for our children etc. We hope, now we’ll be working towards these issues in a more focused manner,” added Mishtri, who has been working as a domestic worker since her adolescent days.

Now she works in a single household and her employers are encouraging about her activism.

Employers' reaction

Most employers were supportive of the move, Tahmina said. Pointing out that there were various types of employers, Tapashi Moira, former secretary of PGPS, said: “Those who were good to us will remain so.”

Many present at the rally said their employers knew about their activism and did not dissuade them. There were doubting Thomases too. “One employer told me that going to the rally would be pointless as we would achieve nothing. I told her to keep watching TV. I could finish my work and still participate. After all, I am fighting for my right,” a worker said.

PGPS and other organisations are now concentrating to broaden the spectrum, visiting new areas and engaging with more workers.

Workers are now seeking written contracts with employers.

The broader movement

Senior trade unions leaders welcomed the move cautiously:

“This is good news. Domestic workers form an important section of the unorganised sector. Their demands regarding minimum wage, welfare board, and leaves must be met and they should be treated as labourers,” Tapan Sen, general secretary of CITU in West Bengal, said. “Now that they are getting the status of a trade union, they should work in collaboration with other unions,” he added.

“I welcome the decision. But we have to keep in mind that achieving the status does not mean misusing the power and disturbing the social structure. Domestic workers have to keep in mind that this status comes with a responsibility,” Pradip Bhattacharya, a member of the National Committee of INTUC, said.

He sought the formation of a commission to look into the demands raised by domestic workers and their rights and place them before the government. “Rights of unorganised sector workers and their movement have to be dealt with cautiously,” he added.

Chandrarekha Pandey, co-ordinator of domestic workers at All-India Unorganised Workers Congress, said: “This is an achievement. It will give domestic workers the status of laborers. I don’t think it’ll have any negative effect on their relation with employers as it will be more transparent now.”

“This status of trade union will make our organisation stronger, but this is only a first step. We have not achieved all. Our employers are not one but many,” PGPS Secretary Anita Mishtri said.

The domestic workers and activists pointed out that they were aware of their responsibilities and that being a Trade Union will help them to fight any irregularity if there is any among themselves too.

In India there is no legal framework as of now regarding the rights of domestic workers. In this scenario as PGPS is granted the status of a Trade Union this definitely marks a sign of change in the rights movement of the unorganised sector workers.

First published: 5 July 2018, 18:41 IST