A rough estimate suggested that there are currently 6.4million domestic workers in India, 71 percent of which is women making it the largest sector for female occupations in urban areas. However, although there has been some gain in getting domestic workers protected under the Sexual harassment act, India still lacks a comprehensive regulatory mechanism for this sector. We spoke to National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), our member in India that has been organizing and mobilizing domestic workers for the last 28 years about their approach, their successes and challenges.

In most countries, even if it’s legally possible to organize, because of the nature of domestic work, because of the invisibility of the work, where not many workers work together, organization of workers has been a challenge. How did NDWM make it happen, not just bring the workers together, but sustain the movement over the years in India?

It is always difficult to get in contact with domestic workers because they work individually behind closed doors. They are also usually opposed to each other because of the competitive job market and feel continuous pressure of job insecurity. In this kind of job, the workers have found that it is easy for the employers to replace them. Their experience has also been that they found it easy to take over the job of their peers or for their peers to replace them. The other factor is most domestic workers carry out their work in more than one household which means they have multiple employers, especially if they are part time domestic workers going from house to house, several houses in a day. As such, because of this, domestic workers have many employers ranging from very good to very difficult ones.

NDWM decided from the beginning to work together on common issues of all domestic workers such as the education of their children. The domestic workers are not able to send their children to school because they do not have proper or permanent houses. One of the issues that we took up was to motivate the parents to send their children to school. We talked to them about the negative impact of lack of education and how the future of their children will be negatively affected by not having education. The other issues NDWM tried to make the parents aware of was the threat of their children being trafficked if they did not have access to education and information.

Since 1985 when NDWM first started in Tamilnadu Dindigul, our approach has always been to ensure full participation of the target group to achieve success. Our focus has always been very clearly on the rights of domestic workers, their health and their further developments.  We started our outreach from the grassroots level, bringing them together and helping organize at that level. As mentioned earlier, because of the private nature of their work, it was difficult to reach out and bring them together. So we visited them at their homes, at places where they lived.

We have always believed in the power of organization among workers to bring about positive change. We supported organizing among domestic workers and formed domestic workers groups. We provided trainings and workshops so that they could see labour rights as their rights. We also organized leadership and other capacity building trainings.  It was a long and continuously developing process to organize and empower them. It took years but we have been able to achieve their full participation. There are leaders among the domestic workers now who take responsibility for the group.

Unionizing has been helpful in bringing powerful voices and given power to their voices. Today, there are nearly 10 States in India where the domestic workers are unionized.  They still need support and trainings to fully take up the unionization and we are working together with them.  Once national level federation is formed the domestic workers may be more recognized for their active role in it.  This year in October we will form the National Federation of the Domestic Workers.

We also work with child domestic workers. We have been involved in the rescue of child domestic workers, accommodating them in our shelters and enrolling them into main stream education.  We conduct awareness raising activities for the parents through activities such as movie screening about child domestic workers and the issues they face. We have held many workshops. Currently we have shelter homes in 5 States for the child domestic workers where they are given shelter, education, counseling and other support. We also help and facilitate children to form into groups to advocate for their rights.  

 What have been your major achievements in the last almost 3 decades?

As mentioned earlier, our achievements are evident in the formation of domestic workers unions in various states of India. But, our first and most important achievement is achieving the dignity of the persons and the work of domestic workers –now domestic workers have an identity.

We have also been successful in getting many States to include domestic workers under Minimum wage act 1948 ensuring that domestic workers get minimum wage. There are few States that now have welfare board for domestic workers. We are also actively working towards the National policy that would institutionalize the right of domestic workers. NDWM is also promoting the ILO Convention that gave way for many countries and Governments to look at domestic workers as workers.

What has been the motivating factor for the movement for the last 27 years?

Domestic work is work hence the workers have the labor rights of like any other workers – this is what we have been advocating for. Today millions of domestic workers have been able to achieve that rights, they have been able to get their dignity as human beings, recognition of their work, their identity because of the continuous involvement of the Movement.   The domestic workers today are able to stand for their rights, they have gained the bargaining power to demand from their employers the right wages, holidays and bonus that are rightfully theirs. It is because of their mobilization that today in many States, they have gained legal protection under the Sexual Harassment Act and they have Welfare Board for domestic workers.

This has been possible through the collective solidarity of the domestic workers across the country. It is the result of the perseverance demonstrated by domestic workers to keep on moving ahead without which working with the government and to reach where we have today would not have been possible.  Our motivation and inspiration also comes from seeing the new life that the children in domestic work have got through our shelter homes where they are given accommodation and access to education.  We draw our inspiration also from those children who participate in our children’s program to come together and take initiative to decide and plan their own project activities.

How have you been able to support migrant domestic workers, international and national migrants? Are there different issues faced by migrant domestic workers?

The cases of migrant domestic workers are more complicated than those domestic workers that are within their own country. And as news coverage show, the abused migrant domestic workers, particularly in the gulf also come from India. They are lured to go there with promises of good future. The situation in their homes works as a push factor. The live-in situation of the workers makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The Kafala system which does not allow the workers  to change employers is one of the most exploitative practices. The abuse they face can be non-payment of wages, low payment of wages, physical, sexual, verbal and mental abuse, retention of their documents and long working hours.

NDWM provides pre departure training for migrating domestic workers at the Protectorate of Emigrants office in Chennai and at the Village level too to prepare inter and intra country migrant domestic workers for situations at destination sites. The pre-departure trainings for the prospective migrant workers include information on sending and receiving country details, handling of passports and visas and understanding of contract s. The information covers everything that is important to know during the entire period starting from emigration  till she reaches her destination. We also include important information such as address  of the embassy  and any other organisation.

We also take up the cases of abuse. We conduct crisis intervention when they face discrimination and exploitation in the destination countries through our contact in India and also with our networks in destination countries. We have links with Migrant Forum Asia members that are based in destination countries. We work closely with them to provide necessary support for the victims in destination countries. We also lobby with the embassy of that particular country. 

What are your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is the opposition we face from government authorities and all those in power, including the employers of domestic workers. The government does not show much concern over the rights of the domestic workers.  We have submitted many memorandums and have been lobbying and advocating to improve situation of domestic workers, but despite all this, the response we often get is silence.

NDWM will be participating at the High Level Dialogue on Population and Development to be held in New York this October. What is your message?

Our primary aim to be at the high level dialogue is to raise issues of the migrant and domestic workers and to demand space for civil societies to express their voices at the HLD.  We want to influence the governments to address issues of migrants as human rights issues. 

We want to raise the issues of domestic workers and highlight that domestic work is work and like all workers, they are entitled to all labour rights.

We would like to know about your collaboration with other likeminded organizations, such as your association with labour rights groups? How have you built and maintained such collaboration and how has that strengthened the movement?

Apart from GAATW, NDWM is also a member of Migrant Forum in Asia at international level.   We also have networks with different trade unions at state and national level in India. As mentioned earlier, the networks help us to extend our services for migrant workers in destination countries. These networks help us to raise our common demands like the rights of the domestic workers and migrant workers effectively and strongly at state, national and international levels.  Bringing all the organizations working for the rights of domestic workers helps us to have strong collective voice to raise our issues with the Government to put forward demands of the domestic workers and migrant workers together.