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A pizza for a month’s domestic work in Mumbai

Mumbai city news: There are nearly 11 lakh domestic workers in Maharashtra, almost all of them women migrants

mumbai Updated: May 31, 2017 19:26 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai city news,domestic help,strike
A shameful recent circular of an upscale apartment complex in Powai, Raheja Vistas, underscored the inhumane and unethical treatment of domestic workers by their employers.(HT File Photo)

Millions of households function like clockwork and lakhs of women take their place in the formal sector in Mumbai thanks to the unstinting work put in by other, less-fortunate, less-educated and underprivileged women who take over the housework. But, families often crib to pay their domestic workers for a job per month what they would happily spend on a pizza.

The shameful recent circular of the upscale apartment complex in Powai, Raheja Vistas, underscored the inhumane and unethical treatment of domestic workers by their employers — and showed us the nasty underside of carefully constructed upper-middle-class sophistication. As has been well reported, the circular in the 11-towers gated community sought to standardise rates for domestic workers ostensibly because some felt they “were being taken for a ride” by workers charging different rates.

The circular fixed maximum rates per job per month (from Rs700 in a two bedroom-hall flat to Rs850 in a 3.5 bedroom-hall one), delineated the details of each job (washing utensils “includes cleaning utensils, wiping and stacking, cleaning platform, sink, gas stove and wall tiles above platform”), laid down that the annual bonus would be either 25% or 50% of the salary, increment would be 5% depending on performance, and fixed two holidays a month.

The circular did state that residents were free to not follow the rates, but added that those who were paying more could adjust downwards. It ended with the strange exhortation “Unity is Power”. Such unity among the well-heeled against those they employ at below-par wages is a cruel irony indeed. Eventually, hundreds of workers united and went on strike to challenge the circular. In conversations and social media posts, some residents spoke of how they were “exploited” by their domestic help; they showed a stunning ignorance of the word’s meaning for they had standardised an average of Rs25 a day per household job. Rs25 fetches, at best, two vada pavs in Mumbai today.

Who exploits who in the domestic work sphere is a no-brainer. There is an inherent exploitative dynamic against the worker. After years of struggle by various unions and associations, the Maharashtra Domestic Workers Act, 2008, finally recognised domestic help as a “worker”, set up district-wise welfare boards with representation from all stakeholders, and began working out the minimum wage based on hours of work and the existing minimum wage for unskilled manual labour. But, domestic workers do not demand minimum wages. The state’s estimate is that there are nearly 11 lakh domestic workers, almost all of them women migrants with little education and awareness of their rights, large majority of them in cities. Not even 25% are registered with the boards.

India is also a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 189, which mandates decent working conditions for domestic workers. “The low levels of remuneration among domestic workers is the result of a range of factors, including a large labour supply, undervaluation of domestic work and its contribution to society, low bargaining power of domestic workers, lack of representation in the sector, and frequent exclusion from labour protection, particularly minimum wage coverage — all of which tend to be interlinked,” stated the ILO document.

The law empowers domestic workers and gets them a fair deal, but how many of them cite the law or enforce it? Beyond the legal lie the ethical and humanitarian aspects of paying adequately for work which supports us, treating workers with dignity and fairness. Never mind minimum wages, what matters is whether we treat domestic work with the respect it deserves and pay a fair market rate to those who do it. A few of them may abuse this; it’s par for the course. It does not mean we do not pay them honourable amounts with some benefits we would expect in our workplaces.

First Published: May 31, 2017 19:25 IST