“Destitution and a lonely death are often the plight of women who help run many households all through their working lives,” says Rupa Kulkarni, President of the Nagpur-based Vidarbha Molkarin Sanghatana and a serving member of the Maharashtra Domestic Workers Welfare Board.

Kulkarni’s own domestic help faced a similar fate 35 years ago, when an aging Lakshmi stopped coming in to do odd jobs around the house, everybody just assumed that she had decided to give up working. And no one really gave her much thought until much later when Kulkarni found out – entirely by chance - that Lakshmi had died begging on the streets of Nagpur.

The news shocked Kulkarni so much that she decided to do something for domestic workers and began to collect the names and addresses of all those who were doing domestic work in her area. She helped them form an informal group. It was in the early 1980s when no one had thought of unionising the informal workers whose appallingly low wages – anywhere between Rs. 2 and Rs. 5 a day left them with no savings even after years of doing back-breaking work in innumerable homes. Moreover, their wages would be cut on the flimsiest of grounds and employment terminated without notice.

“Some things have not really changed even now,” opines Medha Thatte, General Secretary of the Pune District Molkarin Sanghatana as well as Shramik Mahila Morcha, an offshoot of the Pune Sanghatana. She points to a recent case where a domestic worker who had worked at a home for 25 years was turned out on the pretext that she was wearing indecent clothes – red low cut blouses with short sleeves. Says Thatte, “In all these years her employers had said nothing about her clothes. Now that they needed an excuse to dismiss her…they raised this issue.”

Of course, where earlier this poor woman would have simply had to accept her plight without any questions asked, today she is in a position to negotiate for gratuity and damages for wrongful termination with assistance from the Pune District Molkarin Sanghatana.

There are Molkarin Sanghatanas across 14 cities in Maharashtra now. In Pune, when a domestic worker was thrown out from work because she had fallen ill, domestic workers already agitated by low wages and poor working conditions, created an uproar. A strike ensued with workers from different localities taking to the streets. Although it was completely unplanned, the strike spread across Pune. Issues like stagnant wages despite rising prices, and uncertain working conditions came to light and the women who hardly had an identity as a united workforce found direction and formed the Pune Shahar Molkarin Sanghatana.

In its efforts to organise, domestic workers’ committees were formed inside slums, where social activists would enrol members and take up their day-to-day problems. In the very first year of its existence, the Pune Sanghatana worked on the issue of wage hikes linked to price rise and set to work out a bonus as well. Since most domestic workers worked throughout the year - sometimes for years at a stretch - with the same employers, it was felt that they had a right to a yearly bonus. So for the first time, in the interest of a fair deal, a month’s pay was set as the bonus amount. While there was no legal way to enforce this, with awareness being built up through the media and pressure created by the workers themselves, the scenario improved slowly.

The Pune Sanghatana runs a counseling centre for domestic workers where even employers who have problems with their employees can come in to sort out the issues. Its core activity, however, is to tackle family issues that arise out of a lack of literacy of the women and a consequent lack of awareness and, most importantly, alcoholism among the men in their families.

At one point, recalls Thatte, members of the Sanghatana took matters into their own hands. With the police in attendance, they descended in large numbers on liquor shops near slums and requested shopkeepers to down the shutters. When their requests fell on deaf ears, they entered the ‘thekas’, emptied the liquor barrels, broke the glasses and asked them to leave. Eventually, in this manner, they forced many to shut shop.

Kulkarni firmly believes that welfare is “not about wages alone”. The Vidarbha Molkarin Sanghatana also worked on legislative issues. As a result of years of hard work put in by activists and Sanghatana members, Maharashtra passed the Domestic Workers Act, 2008, that finally recognised ‘domestic help’ as a ‘worker’. (Women's Feature Service)