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A Milestone Verdict in the Domestic Worker Struggle

A Milestone Verdict in the Domestic Worker Struggle

Papamma, a domestic worker in Bangalore, took her employers to court and managed to receive a favourable judgment. This is a historic victory for perhaps the most vulnerable segment of unorganised workers, made possible by the support of a trade union, a dedicated team of advocates and a labour officer who adjudicated objectively. The following piece by Anuja Michandaney on this case was first published on Infochange India.

With the upcoming International Labour Conference later this year, there is a buzz about a new legal international instrument providing ‘decent working conditions’ to domestic workers globally. However, as of now, laws benefiting unorganised workers in India, including domestic workers, are few, and the sad reality is that even these most often remain on paper.

It is heartening therefore when the law is actually applied, giving these workers their due. This happened recently to Papamma, a domestic worker in Bangalore who was paid a pittance during her long years of service — 1978 to 2007. Worse, she was discharged abruptly with no provision for retirement. In her words: “I came with empty hands and I left (after 31 years of working) with empty hands.”

A trajectory of her employment shows Papamma received a wage of Rs 60 for 22 years, for eight hours of work a day spanning the entire gamut of household chores from washing clothes to cooking and shopping for vegetables. In 2003, her wages were raised to Rs 500. (Incidentally, the minimum wage for domestic workers was notified for the first time in 2004 — Rs 2,279 for an eight-hour day.) In 2007, before she was unceremoniously dismissed during the last six months of her employment, and following repeated demands, Papamma’s wages were grudgingly raised to Rs 1,500. Even this fell short of the legal minimum wage for that year (2008).

Papamma’s case illustrates the predicament of the domestic worker. Verbal agreements govern working conditions; there is no formal record of employment, only oral undertakings given by the employer that are often retracted later; demands for better wages are met with promises of future settlement which never materialises.

In her employers we see a not-uncommon feudal attitude which manifests in the belief that the domestic worker does not require a weekly day off or extra payment should her workload increase because of guests. And the notion that the occasional help extended when she falls sick, or providing her children school uniforms justifies non-payment of a higher (adequate) wage.

In Papamma’s case we also see loyalty towards her employers that ultimately soured when they refused her employment after a bout of illness.

These were the circumstances that led Papamma to seek legal recourse.

The favourable conclusion of Papamma’s case is a rare example of a domestic worker getting justice from the courts. An instance, perhaps, of institutions coming together to work the way they are meant to — the trade union that provided Papamma a forum, a dedicated team of advocates (from the Alternative Law Forum), and a labour officer who adjudicated objectively.

According to one of the litigators for Papamma, Maitreyi Krishnan, a major reason for the case’s success was Papamma’s persistence; in her experience, due to the vulnerabilities of their situation, many domestic workers don’t see their battle through. Papamma went to the court or to the lawyer’s office whenever required in the course of the litigation which carried on for one-and-a-half years. Secondly, and perhaps equally important, was the support of the Karnataka Domestic Workers Union.

The union was registered in 2003 by Sr Celia who had been working with domestic workers for a number of years. During that time she became convinced that true empowerment of domestic workers would only come about through their unionisation. She believes that any organisation, no matter how well-meaning, will only ‘work for’ and ‘speak on behalf of’ the workers. In the case of a non-worker-headed organisation, the workers become the beneficiaries and are therefore dependent on what is provided to them. There is a difference when those who are actually the ones suffering speak about their own situation, Sr Celia says. As a union, they can represent their own case.

A worker asking for her own rights is different from a human rights activist asking for her rights. There is a sense of empowerment and dignity that does not come through social service, however well intended.

In Papamma’s case, there was a body she could take her grievances to and avail of the support of union members. Initially, this took the form of going with her to the employer’s house. There the employer did not even speak with them, instead he complained to the police about the visit. Papamma, in turn, filed a complaint at the local police station about her wage grievances. They took no action. She then went to the police station, accompanied by some union activists. When the police sub-inspector did not grant them an audience they sat outside the station until he gave in. The police then called the employer to the station where the sub-inspector suggested he pay Papamma a minimal amount of money so that she would not create any further trouble for them. Papamma turned down the employer’s offer as it was far less than what she had been promised. The police told her not to confront the employer and that the appropriate forum for her was the courts. Members of the union went with Papamma to court to attend the hearings.

Krishnan believes it also helped to have a good labour officer hearing the case. In the order that followed a well-researched case, not only were back wages granted but hefty compensation equalling the amount of back wages as well as overtime for all the Sundays Papamma had worked. Stating his reasons, the judge observed in his ruling that the employer was an educated senior citizen and that his lack of awareness about the law showed he had failed in his duty.

Papamma herself does not appreciate the verdict much. She points to her home: an unlit small two-room house in a Lingarajpuram slum. An asbestos sheet forms the roof. The only furniture is an assembled double bed with a thin sheet covering its hard surface, and a plastic chair. Papamma says they wanted to use the money that was promised by her employer to carry out basic structural improvements to the house. The compromise amount she finally got would not serve this purpose. Further, at the age of 65, she would have to continue working.

From a larger perspective, however, the judgment is unprecedented in Karnataka: that someone from the most disadvantaged even within the unorganised sector managed to access the formal legal system and receive a favourable judgment. The fact that Papamma ultimately got a compromise amount, not what the judge ordered, is today’s reality. If she had not gone to court she would not have got even this amount. The judgment is an important step towards recognising that domestic workers too are workers with enforceable rights.

When the minimum wages notification for domestic workers in Karnataka was first passed in 2004 there was a lot of deliberation between the government, labour advocates and civil society about implementing the law. This was because the notification did not provide for implementation mechanisms such as regular inspections and regulations for the maintenance of wage registers by the employer. The labour commissioner of the time suggested that in a scenario of non-payment, if just one claim was filed before the department the successful outcome of the case would have “a multiplier effect”. He suggested that news of the case would spread and serve as a strong deterrent to employers who failed to pay adequate wages. Perhaps Papamma’s case will serve as just such an example.

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