Homes As Unregulated Workplaces for Domestic Care Givers in India

By Geeta Seshu,Womens Feature Service

“Someone must think of us and our plight. After all, we leave our homes and our children to look after your home and your children. Yet, we get no respect, we are thrown out if we fall sick and, after working continuously all week, we get a pittance,” says a wizened Vimal Hirwai, who has been working as a domestic for more than 30 years.

A proud member of the Maharashtra Moulkarin Gharkamgar Sanghatana (MMGS), an organisation affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Hirwai recalls a time when she did all the housework for barely Rs 70 (US$1=Rs 46.7). “The times must change, how long can we work like this without even being recognised?” she asks.

Hirwai’s daughter, Laxmi, and granddaughter, Geeta, are also members of the union but while Laxmi also works as a domestic, Geeta is a private ‘nurse’. The story of these three women – from different generations – provides a fascinating insight into the world of domestic workers, encapsulating changes in working conditions and salaries, even as it underlines the fact that the recognition that eluded Hirwai’s work continues to elude both her daughter and grand-daughter.

Domestic workers, who do the cleaning chores, are at the lowest end of the spectrum of home care workers; those who cook are placed a little higher while the patient or baby care workers at the top. The corresponding wages and status of the three also varies depending on the type of work, geographical location of employment, and experience, or are simply driven by market necessities. “It has been next to impossible to organise these workers,” says Eknath Mane, President, MMGS. In some areas, the cleaning job (dusting, sweeping and mopping) gets around Rs 200 (US$1=Rs 46.7) per month; in others the same work will fetch Rs 500 per month. Then there are other jobs like washing dishes or clothes (with or without a washing machine). There’s no question of security of tenure: A worker can quit or get fired or replaced if she falls sick and doesn’t turn up for work for more than three days.

The task of computing a fixed wage for such variable standards of work is onerous. Sukumar Damle, Maharashtra State Secretary, AITUC says, “We have decided not to get into individual negotiations on wages because we can’t possibly get into the bargaining and fights between the madams and their maids.” The MMGS does take up disputes regarding non-payment of wages and harassment. But, Damle says, the world over, there are discussions on working out comprehensive standards for domestic work, as the 99th session of the International Labour Organisation in June this year decided to include it in its next session in 2011.

The Maharashtra government enacted the Maharashtra Domestic Workers Welfare Board Act in 2008 but rules are yet to be framed. Although the Act doesn’t address the fixation of wages, it does lay down important provisions like ensuring ration cards for domestic workers, and making available medical benefits under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC).

“We have been agitating for several months now for the implementation of the Act. We even stormed the residence of the state labour minister Hasan Mushrif but he said that the government had no money to set up a board and implement the Act!” says Mane, adding that the MMGS has also been working on a campaign to ensure domestic workers get rations through the public distribution system.

“Earlier, when we went to the ration shop we would be told that there was no rice or kerosene. Now if the shop-owner says he doesn’t have any grain or kerosene, we file a complaint. We have ‘himmat’ (confidence) and have learnt to fight,” says Mangala Chavan, 28. Thanks to the Sanghatana, the women have also got Jeevan Madhur and Jeevan Mangal insurance policies through the Life Insurance Corporation. “Every month, agents come to our office and collect the money. Besides, we have even managed to obtain bank accounts,” says Sangita Pandale, 35. This was a big step in giving legitimacy to their existence, as opening a bank account was denied to them since they lived in rented accommodation and did not even possess ration cards.

Domestic health care workers, on the other hand, get a higher daily wage – Rs 200-250 for ‘ayahs’ (helpers or attendants) and Rs 700-750 per day for private nurses. While regulation is non-existent, unrecognised nursing training institutes and placement bureaus have mushroomed, fuelled by the increasing demand for geriatric care or the need for an extra hand in nuclear families to assist people with post-operative care or disabilities.

Patient care work is preferred over cleaning, as it is better paid and has fixed 12-hour shifts. The government recognised nursing institutes have a rigorous three-year course but institutes, like the Sumit Academy, which Hirwai’s granddaughter Geeta enrolled in, charge Rs 4,000 for a three-month course and ostensibly trains for total patient care. “Not everyone can go for a government course, where you need to have a Class 10 pass certificate. So we don’t have a choice but to go to the private institutes,” Geeta says, adding that while the ‘nurses’ work under the guidance of the doctors their patients consult, the ‘ayahs’ are given tasks like cleaning or changing the patient.

“But this is not easy work and it is difficult to find people with the disposition for it,” says Harkishan Bhambhani, who runs Bina Ayah’s Section, a successful agency for the placement of attendants. The Ayah Section is an offshoot of Bina Nurses Bureau, started by his mother Gopi Bhambhani in 1963. Around 500 ‘ayahs’ are registered with the Bureau and a 12-hour shift gets them Rs 250 per day, while an eight-hour shift is for Rs 210, with an extra Rs 20 for travel from the railway station to the place of work.

While no training is given, an orientation in terms of the kind of work, hygiene, safety and the subtle distinction between ‘ayah’ work and that of a domestic worker is explained to the recruits. “We fix the rates and take Rs 200 per month from the ayahs as our service charges. They are assured of placement, since at any given time, we have a waiting list of 10-15 patients per day,” says Harkishan.

The Bina Bureau mainly provides private nursing care, both for hospitals and home care. “There’s also a growing demand for male attendants but we are simply not able to organise care for them,” adds Gopi.

Both Gopi and Harkishan are keen on more regulation to weed out fly-by-night operators, especially from the Maharashtra Nurses Council for nursing institutes. Regulation is much more difficult for the ‘ayah’ service, where the demand is high and employment depends on location or networks.

Gopi also began a hostel for nurses. According to Fatima John Dantas, 43, nurse, who takes care of a disabled patient in Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai, this is a boon. “I earn Rs 700 for a day shift and Rs 750 for night shift with a 10 per cent commission to the Bureau. With food and travel expenses, I manage to save Rs 10-12,000 a month. Yes, the work is tough and we don’t get weekly offs unless we are ourselves sick. But I am a single woman and this work is best for me,” she says.

The agencies do get complaints of harassment and, sometimes, ill-treatment. There are payment issues and some clients have to be blacklisted. “People have to realise that these workers provide a very important service. This work is both a necessity and a luxury. And there is a growing demand for it,” says Harkishan.