Picture this: 9 women cramped into an auto (three-wheeler vehicle in India), taking a savari (‘ride’ in Hindi) to their workplace. Two women in saris on either side of the autowallah (driver), three on the seat at the rear actually meant for people to occupy, three on the little wooden slab facing it, fitted to accommodate more people, and one on the iron railing bordering the right side of the auto. The crisis of public transportation in India forces the working poor to travel in overcrowded buses, trucks, seven seaters, and autorickshaws. Perhaps the image is somewhat overwhelming in the present context of the pandemic and the mantra of SMS (sanitizing, masks, social distancing), but this is how domestic workers travelled in the BC (Before Corona) era or so I discovered when I interviewed domestic workers as part of a summer course in 2018.
Brinda (names changed for purposes of anonymity), a domestic worker in my neighbourhood, told me how this ‘auto’ arrangement came to fruition. Her husband did not approve of her travelling for work every day. She had however never given it any thought, but after being stalked by a young man at the bus stop for two days, she was scared. Incidents like these, she said, which were not isolated, brought the community of domestic workers in her area to team up to find a solution. They identified a few autowallahs and struck a deal with them. Six autowallahs would ferry 6 groups of 8 to 9 domestic workers to and from work and each would have to contribute Rs. 8 to 10 per ride (14 cents). Brinda also introduced me to her other ‘automates’ who corroborated her story with experiences of their own.
These shared auto rides provide opportunities for the group to discuss a variety of issues related to work, to trade stories, and brainstorm solutions as a mini-collective. En route to the workplace (a 15 to 30-minute ride depending on the traffic), they would discuss how much each of them earned to fix the “going on rate” for their labour in a particular area. It is only reasonable, they argued, that people living in “posh” areas (perceived to be a mix of commercial and residential) pay more than those living in purely residential areas, often categorized as low-income neighbourhoods. They would also discuss the added benefits of working for a particular family, what infrastructure they expected to already be there in a particular home (washing machine or a mop) and how they could negotiate issues of leave, including getting one of their travel companions to substitute for them. It is also during these auto rides, Maniamma says, that the unspoken rule of not “snatching” work from a fellow worker became a common understanding. As a group they also decided that a 3-day paid leave per month was not only reasonable, but if these days off were not utilized, they could ask to be paid a bonus.
The Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment estimates that there are approximately four million domestic workers in India. The unofficial figures are much more staggering, with the International Labour Organization suggesting that there are about 20 to 80 million domestic workers in the country (75 % of whom are women). Given that domestic work (such as cleaning, sweeping, mopping, cooking, babysitting) often takes place inside the ‘private’ settings of people’s homes (historically, the home has never been considered to be a workplace), and is classified as informal, unskilled and unproductive, it was not governed by any law as such until the United Progressive Alliance government mandated that it be recognized as part of the unorganized sector and be regulated by Unorganized workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. This act is primarily geared towards defining who a ‘worker’ is and social security benefits such as life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, provident fund. However, this act does not include any directive about ensuring fair work and minimum wages and was never implemented because of a few “design flaws”, such as not differentiating between agricultural and unorganized non agricultural workers. Further, it was left to the State governments to establish State Social Security Boards to recommend suitable schemes and ensure social security to unorganized workers. Telangana is one of the States that is yet to institute this board, despite the fact that Hyderabad is one of the major cities where domestic workers migrate for work.
Subsequently, there were several attempts to formulate separate legislations for domestic workers. A national policy that was drafted in 2011, a private member bill introduced by Shashi Tharoor (Member of Parliament) in 2016, and another by domestic workers’ unions in 2017, but ultimately, they were shelved. The latest effort made by the Modi-led government, the National Policy on domestic workers, 2019 (still under consideration) has its heart in the right place, and addresses some of the key issues articulated by the workers who spoke with me. Concretely, it seeks to:
- grant domestic workers the legal status of a ‘worker’ and register as “unorganized workers”
- address issues of minimum wages, paid leaves, social security
- clearly define full time, part-time, live-in workers, employers, private placement agencies
- form their own associations or unions
- enhance their skills by providing training
- provide protection from abuse and exploitation and a grievance redressal system.
The draft policy also assumes that domestic workers are now covered under the Unorganized Workers Act, despite proof to the contrary. The steady rise of on-demand domestic work platforms such as Bookmybai and Bookmynanny, also needs to be taken into consideration by the state. Currently, there are no laws that protect gig workers, with the Code on Social Security, 2019 yet to be approved by the parliament.
The abuse and exploitation (both physical and sexual) of domestic workers is reported in the media, but few lodge a formal complaint. Most domestic workers are either not aware of the legal provision (Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace Act, 2013) or on account of belonging to non-dominant castes and communities (such as tribal minorities), feel a fight with “bigger people” is a losing battle. Some of the workers who spoke with me also mention abuse but not always as having themselves suffered it. Older and more experienced workers, they said, would warn those new to the trade against working in a particular home (those who are known to abuse their ‘servant,’ or bachelors’ homes are a strict no-no) during these auto savaris.
The metaphor of the ‘savari’ is quite interesting for many reasons: It represents both the literal travel involved, and the travel from an individualised experience requiring personalized mechanisms (such as negotiating wages) to that of shared experiences and a collective redressal of issues (however small or informal the effort of collectivisation). These interviews compel me to wonder if it is possible to identify, and/or energize and enhance informal collectivisations (like the auto savari groups) that might already be happening across sectors via digital technologies. For instance, domestic workers organizations and unions in Indonesia, Thailand, and Hong Kong have used mobile phones and internet to create virtual solidarities, mobilize themselves to protest against discriminatory laws (such as the proposed minimum two year contract at a placement agency), and document abuse. The mobile phone, specifically, could potentially be a device that connects isolated domestic workers with organizations that are already working towards their rights and protection (such as the Hyderabad Bastee people’s federation and National Domestic Workers’ Movement), and foster a sense of community and solidarity.
Recent media reports also suggest that, in the absence of the safety net of labour laws that specifically apply to domestic workers, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have only exacerbated issues outlined above: losing jobs, not being paid for the months they were unable to report to work. Those that tried to continue working through the lockdown were branded as “virus carriers” or “super spreaders”, and found themselves at the mercy of their employer’s “benevolence”. Even though India seemingly recognises the rights of workers, and is a signatory to the ILO’s Convention on Domestic workers, without ratification, this agreement is limited to word and not spirit, and the rules are not binding. The fact that there has been a 120 % increase in the number of domestic workers post-liberalization only underscores the need for a comprehensive national policy that can empower these community of workers, instead of “carewashing” –deliberately confusing actual legal provisions and monetary assistance with expressions of gratitude through words.