“When his children and grandchildren would go out, he would purposely stay home and keep following me around. He would pat my back, but then his hands would wander. I tried to ignore it. I knew no one would believe me if I told them, so I kept quiet. That man used to tell me, ‘Wear a short dress, you will look better in it.’ I put up with it because I had to earn to support my family.”
- Kainaat (25, name changed), of Harijan Basti, Gurgaon, as told to Human Rights Watch in its 2020 report “No #MeToo for Women Like Us”
For women domestic workers, a community numbering roughly 4.2 million in India according to official estimates (unofficial estimates place numbers at least ten times more), the world of work is rent with experiences of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2018, the Martha Farrell Foundation, through an art-based participatory action research project with and by women domestic workers in Gurgaon, found that while experiences of sexual and gender based violence in the workplace are common, there’s very little inclination among them to report them or seek justice. Fear of repercussions such as loss of job and societal stigma, fear of being disbelieved or fear of being further marginalised in the judicial system are just some reasons.
“When I told my employer [I was being sexually harassed by a sanitation worker], she said ‘You only must have done something. Aur apni zulfein kholkar jao (It’s your fault for leaving your hair open).”
- Sheela (26, name changed), of Harijan Basti, Gurgaon, as told to the Martha Farrell Foundation during the Domestic Workers’ Postcard Campaign in January, 2021
In a National Consultation with and by domestic workers, organised by the Foundation in 2019, domestic workers and other stakeholders present underscored the need for trained, responsive and sensitive Local Committees, set up under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
To date, however, Local Committees have either not been formed, or remain untrained and unaware of the layered challenges faced by domestic workers in their world of work. Moreover, women domestic workers remain unaware of the law, or whether there are Local Committees in their districts in the first place.
No bargaining chip
Domestic workers belong to the informal economy, and excluded from core labour laws, including minimum wage. They set their rates for work based on locality to locality. Negotiating hours, weekly offs or paid maternity leave is out of the question for them. Undercover of a situation where the odds are stacked against them, the crime of sexual harassment in their world of work thrives, and perpetrators walk away unaffected.
“There was a domestic worker in the building where I work, who was raped and thrown from the eleventh floor by her employer. We protested and gathered at the police station, but there was no help.”
- Jaya (26, name changed), of Harijan Basti, Gurgaon, as told to the Martha Farrell Foundation during the Domestic Workers’ Postcard Campaign in January, 2021
Now, in light of the pandemic, the few demands they used to make with respect to their wages and time off, have also been sidelined. As has been their ability to look out for safe workplaces and working conditions.
Impacts of the pandemic
The second wave has impacted domestic workers insidiously. The twin challenges of job loss and infection have rendered many without income or money, pushing families across the board to the brink of starvation. The Martha Farrell Foundation’s ongoing data collection revealed that out of 2328 women domestic workers in Delhi and Haryana, 100% said their immediate need is ration.
“Kaam nahi hai, toh khaana kaise khaayenge? (how will we eat, if I don’t work and earn)” says Priya Devi (name changed), a domestic worker from Nandlal Basti, a slum settlement in Gopalpur, Delhi. Usha Devi’s five children and she are surviving on the ration given by the school where her two youngest sons go. Her husband died eight years ago, and she is the sole breadwinner of the family. “Chawal, dal aur dalda diya hai abhi school mein (we have received some rice, dal and dalda),” she says. Having lost all her jobs in the second wave, she’s desperate to find work.
Reena (name changed), a domestic worker living in Bengali Colony in Delhi, says, “Kaam nahi hai toh paise kaise aayenge? Hum udhar le leke kaam chala rahe hain, abhi. (Without work, there’s no money. We’re living off of borrowed money and food)”
Many of the families of women domestic workers we spoke to are surviving solely on ration donated by civil society and nonprofits. The desperation to find work, earn and overcome the cycle of debt and hunger is evident.
“Sabse zaroori hai kaam milna. Kaam milega, toh kama ke bacchon ko sabzi khila paayegi (It’s most important for us to get a job. If I get a job, I can feed my children vegetables.),” says Priya Devi.
“Kaam milega toh karungi, warna ghar pe baithna padhega (I’ll do work if I find it, else I’ll have to sit home),” says Lali Devi (name changed), a domestic worker from Harijan Basti, Gurgaon.
Outside hospitals, families desperate for work crowded around waiting for opportunities to take care of COVID positive patients as the second wave raged. “Kaam waali chahiye? Meri biwi ko le lo! (You want a domestic worker? Take my wife!)” men could be heard shouting, according to Lata, a domestic worker from Krishi Vihar, Delhi.
With the system rigged against them and their lives hinging on the money they earn at this time, how will domestic workers advocate for their safety in the world of work? How will sexual harassers be put to justice? Is it to be as Sarita Devi, a domestic worker from Harijan Basti, Gurgaon, said: “There is no #MeToo for women like us”?
This International Domestic Workers Day, 2021, as we demand that the Indian government ratify ILO Convention 189, demanding fair pay, and the right to a safe and healthy work environment for women domestic workers, we must include the demand to form and train police and Local Committees to identify, support and help deliver justice to domestic workers in cases of sexual harassment in their world of work.
Nitya Sriram is a Senior Program Officer at the Martha Farrell Foundation.