It is a social outcry, one that has borne testimony of its existence when well-known Bollywood film-star Shiney Ahuja was accused of raping his domestic help. But his is not an isolated incident say union of domestic workers campaigning for their rights in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state. They thus organized themselves together to raise their voice against sexual harassment at their workplace and have ensured their voice is heard - loud and clear!
Women from all localities of Lucknow turned up to render their support to the cause as their leaders spoke addressing the media at UP Press Club.
Says Geeta, Convener, Rashtriya Gharelu Kamgar Union (National Domestic Workers Union) Lucknow, "After the construction site workers the largest workforce in the country in the unorganized sector is that of the domestic workers, yet their rights are openly violated and they have no hearing if they are exploited both sexually and economically. It is ironical that on one hand the government is enacting laws to protect women who face sexual harassment at the workplace and on the other hand the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill 2010 which deals with the issue totally ignores the domestic workers. This, despite the fact that they are facing such harassment day in and day out at their workplace at the hands of their employers. It is a serious problem as over 90% of this workforce is living below the poverty line and are more oppressed by their employers. Thus it is imperative that such women also be brought under the ambit of the Sexual Harassment Bill 2010."
Discussing at length the constraints that domestic workers face when sexually harassed by their employers, Tahira Hassan, APWA, who presided over the event said, "Women who work as domestic workers have no fixed hours of work and neither do they have a fixed minimum wages, in addition to that they have no access to government run schemes and privileges like old age and widow pension, free ration, free education for their children, maternity leave and fixed paid leaves. After being deprived so much when she faces sexual harassment as well she is unable to raise her voice as she is totally unaware of whom to contact for help and continues to face the abuse. She is unable to leave as well simply because she has the responsibility to support her family. In such a situation the government’s role should be to include the domestic workers in the sexual harassment bill so that they have a voice and can raise it against their perpetrators who also double up as their employers."
Ms Hassan also made a strong case against the placement agencies that were mushrooming all over the country, "These placement agencies must be shut down as they are the root cause of exploitation of the women who are fooled into coming to big cities and work in posh homes as servants. These agencies are responsible for the poor condition of domestic workers as they are only interested in making money and don’t care if the women are exploited in return for that."
Asha Mishra, President, of All India Women’s Federation too addressed the gathering of domestic workers in Lucknow and stressed on the fact that, "If the government makes rules to address issues related to women then they must ensure that it is implemented as well. Without implementation rules had no meaning specially in the unorganized sector as the domestic workers."
She lamented the fact that the fear of losing their jobs and an economic support forced these women to keep mum and tolerate the atrocities.
Apart from the women rights activists and Union workers addressing the gathering, also present were domestic workers who had faced exploitation at the hands of their employers.
Malati, a domestic worker recalled how she was framed in a murder case at a house she was working, "Whenever there is a crime committed in a house the first person that the police suspects is the domestic servant, in my case too I was arrested and brought to the police station. It took for a lot of persuasion and demonstrations by the Rashtriya Gharelu Kamgar Union outside the thana to get me out."
Kamla, other domestic workers with 5 children shared with those present, how she was exploited by her employer in Gomtinagar, "I am called at odd hours to work and not given wages on time. One day there was a robbery at the house and the lady of the house accused me saying that I should bring back the jewelry lost or she would make a police complaint. I tried to explain to her that I had come to work not steal from the house that helps sustains my family. But she was not ready to listen and fired me without giving me my wages."
In most cases that were presented by the union workers severe physical and mental exploitation was evident at the hands of the employers.
A trend which will further grow felt Risha Sayed, a criminal lawyer who was also present at the conference. "The Sexual Harassment Bill at Workplace 2010 though addresses the problems of working women what it does not take into account is the domestic workers who comprise 90% of the workforce. The problems in the bill that arise is the fact that it calls for a committee to be set up to look into the complaints. But who will the domestic workers complain to? The ones who are exploiting them are the home owners who are also technically their employers. Thus it is a very complicated situation when it comes to seeking protection for domestic workers under this bill."
Corroborating Sayed’s claim Human Rights Activist from Sonebhadra, Roma said, "It is high time the central government should consider domestic workers as part of the organized sector given their sheer size. In addition it is very important that separate laws must be enacted covering the domestic workers in the country. Especially when it comes to protecting them from sexual exploitation."
But by far the most worrying fact that came to the fore during the conference was the exploitation of children in the domestic workers sector.
Referring to a survey done by Gharelu Kamgaar Trust run by Nav Jagrati Sansthan, South City Lucknow, Sister Justina, who runs the trust revealed, "After a survey of the South City area in Lucknow we found that domestic workers' children who the mothers had to bring with them to work were also being made to do house work. Most employers convinced the parents to force their children to stay in the homes of the employers on the pretext that they will get them educated. But once the parents sent them to the employers the children were trapped in the homes and treated very badly and forced to do work as servants. We have rescued a number of minor girls and boys from many posh homes and it was quite an effort to free them."
With many facets of a age old problem of domestic workers the women of the sector were urged to unite and demand their rights which included timely police intervention in cases of exploitation, free medical and education benefits, old age and widow pension, provision of ID cards and ration cards and fixing of minimum wages. Most even sought working holidays in a month and paid leave from employers.
(The author is a senior journalist writing for Citizen News Service (CNS) and is the founder-Director of Saaksham Foundation. Website: www.citizen-news.org, email: Anjali@citizen-news.org)