Saturday, December 16, 2006

Maidservants arise!

Some years ago, I had written about the maidservants of Calcutta. They are perhaps the single largest category of women workers among the poor and vulnerable in the city. They are based in the city's slums. And it is in the relations between employers and domestic workers that the ugly, exploitative, double-faced character of India's privileged classes is most manifest.

I had argued that it was high time for a major initiative to empower this section, through trade union type organisation, training, counselling, community development efforts, and advocacy. I suggested that at least a pilot initiative be taken up.

So I was very happy to read yesterday that over 25,000 maidservants in Mumbai (Bombay) went on strike on 14 December.

Around one hundred thousand homes in the city's suburbs, from Bandra and Juhu to Khar and Santacruz, were hit by the unexpected strike. The larger of the two unions of domestic workers in the city, the Ghar Kamgar Mulkarni Sanghatan (affiliated to the Communist Party of India's labour wing AITUC), joined the strike.

Surekha Maity, 54, whose husband is a farmer in Midnapore, said she was participating in the strike because she needed the union to help her negotiate salary and perks with prospective employers as well as maid agencies.

“I worked as a live-in help with a family in Lokhandwala for eight years. One fine day, they chucked me out and the agency that brought me to Mumbai did not stand by me. That’s when I got to know the union people. Now whenever they need me, I am here for them,” she said. Hailing from Bengal, Bihar and Nepal, women like Surekha cook and clean in the suburbs.

The union office in Goregaon wore a festive look on Thursday as president Babli Raut addressed a gathering of domestic workers, their spouses and children, all turned out in their best clothes. Later the women, along with a few enthusiastic men, took out a rally.

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