In from the cold

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

A gathering on the occasion of International Domestic Workers Day in Bangalore on January 9.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

A gathering on the occasion of International Domestic Workers Day in Bangalore on January 9.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

ABOUT 15 years ago, a small morcha wound its way through Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai. In terms of age, gender and community, it was a motley crowd. Nothing seemed to hold it together except for a huge banner that proclaimed that its members were domestic workers. They called out a few slogans in a desultory fashion. As the morcha made its way through the streets, people surreptitiously dropped out of it. On the whole the show was not a success.

Though nothing immediate came out of the morcha, it could be considered the forerunner of a Bill that was passed on January 2 by both Houses of the State Legislature in its recently concluded winter session in Nagpur. The Domestic Workers Welfare Board Bill was the outcome of a two-decade-old struggle to ensure the rights of domestic workers.

The Bill gives domestic workers legal recognition as salaried employees. This means that hitherto non-existent or flexible aspects such as leave and bonus will now be bound by law. Domestic workers will also be able to avail themselves of benefits as employees as stated under the States labour laws. Hence, financial support in the form of soft loans, health insurance and a provident fund will be made available.

While the exact benefits are yet to be decided by district welfare boards, the Bill is a very welcome piece of legislation for workers who are often unfairly treated and have to put up with atrocities.

Its a big victory and a first step towards organising domestic workers, said Dr. Rupa Kulkarni, president of the Vidarbha Molkarin Sanghatana (VMS), the organisation of domestic workers that relentlessly worked for the Bill.

A keen student of Dr. B.R. Ambedkars ideology of equality across the classes, Rupa Kulkarni retired in 2005 as the head of Nagpur Universitys Sanskrit Department. She has led the movement for the last 20 years. Her interest in the issue was first aroused in 1978 when she realised that domestic workers in Nagpur earned as little as Rs.15 month. They would be paid five rupees for washing clothes, five rupees for vessels and five rupees for cleaning the floor, she said. Even when holding multiple jobs, they were unable to make ends meet. Astounded at their lives and their strength, Rupa Kulkarni studied their situation and set about collecting data informally. In 1980, she formed the VMS.

One of the things she did in those early days was to organise free medical checks. Recalling them, she said, These women worked with water all the time. They had bad skin problems. Their hands and feet were so dry that they were cracked open and bled. They suffered intense back pain. Still, they had to keep working. And their haemoglobin level was as low as 3.5 [normal levels range between 11.5 and 15.5 gms/decilitre of blood]. They were severely anaemic, but they just kept working.

As her involvement with the women grew, Rupa Kulkarni realised the extent of the problem in organising them. How would one define a domestic? How would a minimum wage be set for work that could be so varied? And most important, should not such workers be considered a part of the labour force of the State?

Over the years, Rupa Kulkarni established three categories of domestic workers those working in many homes, those working in one home for a number of hours, and those who were live-in domestics. Thirty-five types of domestic work were identified.

The new law is a big victory and a step forward, but Rupa Kulkarni says much work remains to be done. The first requirement is to arrive at a relatively accurate estimate of the number of domestic workers in the State.

The VMS has 51,000 registered members in Nagpur. Rupa Kulkarni extrapolates this to make an estimated figure for the entire State: Nagpurs population is 30 lakh. Maharashtra has 33 districts and approximately one lakh workers in every district. Maharashtras population is 10 crore. For a start, we estimate that there are about 50 lakh to one crore workers in the State. The States estimate of 25 lakh workers is way too much on the lower side.

The State is now in the process of creating district-level boards with which workers will be registered. The boards are expected to start functioning after March. Their duties will be to provide accident insurance and scholarships for domestic workers children, pay for the last rites of such workers, pay premiums for health insurance, and, in case of serious illnesses or surgery, ensure free medical treatment for the affected workers. For all this, a corpus will be required. The passage of the Bill was crucial because the Cabinet can make budgetary allocations only after a Bill has been passed by the Upper House.

Thus, the next month and a half is crucial to Rupa Kulkarni, whose aim is to form a reliable estimate of the number of workers so that the State can budget for their benefits during the Budget session of the legislature in March. Once the initial capital has been provided by the State, both the employers and the employees will be expected to pay a monthly fee (yet to be set) to the board. Once a minimum wage is decided, a percentage levy will be added to it, and this will become part of the salary that the employer will deposit with the board. The board will disburse the workers salaries. The system calls for employers to go to a board office to pay their dues, a process that many will no doubt baulk at.

Rupa Kulkarni sees this as only a minor glitch and says drop-off points can be created. On whether the system of boards disbursing salaries might have scope for corruption and create hurdles for workers, she said, There will be some agency to guard their interest and there will be a passbook system so this should not be a problem.

There is yet another problem. At present salaries differ according to the location of work. Salaries of domestic workers in upmarket South Mumbai are higher than salaries in many other parts of the city. Would there be ward-wise boards within Mumbai to sort out this problem? It is a complicated situation, Rupa Kulkarni said, adding that the employers capacity to pay would be taken into account, too.

As to whether the new rules might initially backfire on the workers with employers preferring do their own housework instead of hiring help, Rupa Kulkarni said that a small percentage might do this. In Nagpur, when we first started the movement there were employers who dismissed the workers. But the women stood their ground and now it is not uncommon for a worker to tell the employer, If the salary does not suit you I can get a job elsewhere. The rules will ultimately be beneficial not only to the workers but to the employers as well. Employers will be happy because the rules will put a check on the domestics bunking tendencies! Rupa Kulkarni said, laughing.

Realising that making the new law into a workable reality will take a lot more work, the State has decided to form a committee comprising the Labour Minister, certain non-governmental organisations, and representatives of employers (the manner in which employer representatives will be selected is yet to be decided).

It is striking that Maharashtra took so long to pass this Bill, given its reputation as a State with progressive social sector policies. Legislation that provides financial and welfare benefits to domestic workers has been passed in many other States, notably in all the southern ones. Rupa Kulkarni attributed the delay in Maharashtra to a lack of political will: The southern States have been more sensitive to this issue. Despite our tradition of reforms, it took very long for us to get a positive response from the government. But that is now in the past. The main obstacle is over.

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