|CULTURE & SOCIETY
Her Bill Of Writes
From domestic worker to bestselling author, Baby Halder is a story of possibility. Garima Jain captures moments of her life, as the Cabinet deliberates a bill to empower domestic labour
THE NATIONAL policy for domestic workers submitted to the Cabinet by the National Advisory Council seeks to empower the domestic workforce under seven extant laws. But Baby Halder, 38, long ago threw out the rulebook to write her own. A domestic worker by day, and acclaimed author by night, Halder first claimed the spotlight in 2006, with the publication of her bestselling A Life Less Ordinary. But she steps away from its glare each day, to tend the flames of home and hearth for her employer.
The second last thing Halder does each evening is cook dinner for her employer, the retired anthropology professor Prabodh Kumar. The last thing she does is work on the manuscript of her third book, or wind down by reading Satyajit Ray. In our collective imagination, the two worlds of domestic servant and celebrated writer do not quite co-exist. But Halder’s life is a testament to the contrary. Her struggles started early in life in Kolkata. Abandoned by her mother at the age of seven, she suffered beatings by her father. By the time she was 13, Halder was married to an abusive husband and had given birth to their first child. Determined to escape, she ran away to Delhi with her three children to work as a domestic help.
Life changed when she began to work for Kumar. He noticed her deep interest in books and encouraged her to write the story of her life. “Writing a book has changed my life. People have a new-found respect for me. I love when people invite me to literary festivals in India as well as abroad,” says Halder. With earnings from her books, Halder is building a house in Kolkata.
All the recognition is yet to compel her to take up writing as a full-time career. “I want to be a writer and will continue to write, but I can’t abandon Mr Kumar. He is like a father, friend and guru to me,” she says. Halder admits to having become “more ambitious” following the success of her books. “Writing has helped me come out of my shell. I feel I’m a part of society.”
Garima Jain is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka.
A decent proposal
The NAC has put forth a policy that acknowledges the imbalance of power between domestic workers and their employers. It's up to us to let the law into our homes, says Gauri Singh
India has approximately 7 million domestic workers, according to official estimates. Unofficial reports put the number at 90 million. Domestic work is a predominantly female occupation. Thus, this form of work holds important ramifications for women’s work and their welfare. Informality is a dominant feature of domestic work: virtually all workers engaged in private households are informal workers, and thus work with very little social protection.
Over the past two decades, activists and organisations have been advocating to regulate domestic work and ensure it is recognised as ‘real’ work. Recently, with the media focus on the abuse of domestic workers by middle class employers, the issue has received widespread attention. Most importantly, the first-ever national policy has been formulated by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India, that seeks to make “decent work a reality for domestic workers”.
This is a rights based policy, a welcome recognition of the long-standing issue of domestic workers and their role in the economy. The policy aims to guide legislative changes in the existing worker and labour laws to include domestic workers, and also provide guidelines to the Central and state governments to ensure effective enforcement.
Till date domestic workers have been excluded from virtually all labour and worker legislation and policies, leaving them without redress and vulnerable to exploitation. The policy calls for suitable amendments in the multiple worker rights related Central and state legislations that would explicitly include domestic workers to enable them to fully enjoy their rights as workers such as minimum wages, defined work hours, paid annual and sick leaves and access to social security benefits. Some of these acts include—the Trade Union Act, the Payment of Wages Act, the Minimum Wages Act and, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act.
In addition to the recommendations on the legislative changes, the policy advocates public dissemination of these changes through promotion of worker collectives such as unions and federations and awareness campaigns for the employers and other stakeholders such as the RWAs. The policy also recommends the much-needed regulation of the placement agencies that have mushroomed around us today, in the wake of emerging market need for domestic workers.
In my experience managing a worker owned housekeeping initiative, employer are often unwilling to extend even basic rights such as fair wages and a weekly day off. Historically, domestic workers have been viewed as indentured labour as opposed to a worker; it may be a long time before the employer mindset is transformed. To expect the same employer to actively participate in seminars on worker rights is unrealistic! Thus, the push for exercising these rights must come from the workers themselves.
For the domestic worker, all of the above would boil down to have her grievances addressed on the ground through a timely and effective redressal mechanism. The policy recommends a single window access to domestic workers for all their needs including welfare matters, social protection, social security, and protection from abuse against the employer or placement agency.
However, making the domestic worker aware of the existence of the redressal mechanism, along with the larger law itself would require a strong awareness drive amongst workers. Given the unorganised nature of this sector, creating this awareness is going to be a tall order. And most likely, enforcement will be a logistical nightmare.
At the core, the gross imbalance of power between the employer and the employee leaves the worker with a serious disadvantage, and this fundamental power dynamic will not change with the introduction of this policy. This imbalance can only be effectively levelled through promotion of formal collective structures such as unions, federations or other market based solutions. A formal structure increases the collective bargaining power of the worker and levels the imbalance of power. Not only that, such structures can also be used as delivery channels for the domestic workers’ rights and welfare schemes at a large scale.
Through our own experience, we have been able to demonstrate the power and success of collective bargaining through standardisation of scope of work, fair wages, leave policies and ensuring appropriate work conditions. More importantly, we have been able to provide our domestic workers the ability to negotiate fair employment contracts.
This policy is overall an important, progressive step for worker empowerment and justice. The most crucial step we need to take to ensure this policy and the resulting legislation on domestic workers effective is a cultural and mindset shift. Employers must recognise that domestic work is an essential service – and pay for it at fair wages. Most of us feel our lives will fall apart without domestic workers, yet don’t seem willing to pay fair rates. Domestic workers and collectives such as ours certainly welcome this policy—as of now, it is the only hope for domestic workers’ rights. Yet we also know that until we transform entrenched social norms—and rid ourselves of the notion that domestic work must be cheap labor – this policy will have a tough ride ahead.
Gauri Singh is the Founder and CEO of The Maids Company in Gurgaon, a social enterprise co-owned by its workers (www.themaidscompany.com)