Shadow Workforce's Battle for Dignity

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 3, 2008

CHENNAI, India -- On the day she asked her employer of 16 years for a raise, Pushpa Alamalai put on her best sari and wove a traditional string of jasmine flowers into her neatly oiled braid. But Alamalai, a housekeeper, felt so worried that she had trouble breathing.

"I needed so much confidence to ask for more pay," said Alamalai, 45, a mother of four who scrubs the floors, washes the dishes and cuts vegetables for a middle-class family here for the equivalent of $22 a month. "I was working for so many years to their satisfaction. All those years I had not asked for anything."

For Alamalai and other household workers in India, asking for a pay increase was once seen as risky. It often led to confrontations and, occasionally, firings. Household workers have no government protections, no minimum-wage guarantees, no health benefits, no paid holidays and, usually, no days off. Hindered by traditional prejudices against their low-caste status, many domestic workers say they have been forced to the sidelines as the middle and upper classes prospered during the country's decade-long boom.

But that appears to be slowly changing. The rising expectations of India's legions of working poor have sparked an unprecedented movement to organize household workers and push for their rights. The effort comes as the supply-demand ratio for domestic workers shifts in their favor: India's economic rise has spurred more and more families to hire more and more servants. Increasingly, household help is seen as a necessity for India's busy families, as well as a sign of status in this class-conscious country.

There are at least 100 million domestic workers in India -- 50 times the number of people working in the software industry. Domestic labor constitutes one of the country's largest job categories, behind farming and construction.

The growing confidence of this shadow workforce is reflected in the proliferation of domestic worker unions across the country. They are challenging deep-rooted prejudices about caste, class and labor and calling on India's government to extend to domestic workers the rights, benefits and protections afforded to workers in other industries.

Several organizations are drafting a domestic workers bill, which would mandate the creation of a central agency where the household help can file charges of abuse. The bill is likely to include minimum-wage requirements, mandatory benefits, holiday and overtime pay. It would also set up a social security fund and health-care account for the workers.

"The heart of the issue is that society doesn't respect their labor as real work," said Josephine Amala Valarmathi, coordinator of the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Welfare Board in Chennai. "Even the workers themselves took a long time to see that there was actual labor and dignity in their jobs. We have a long battle ahead. But it's starting."

As part of their campaign to change the law, domestic-worker organizations have begun holding street protests to demand salary increases, sick pay and a weekly day off. Unions are also urging a change in the lexicon -- replacing commonly used but feudal-sounding words such as "servant" and "owner" with more neutral terms such as "employee" and "employer."

"The power dynamic really is changing now. Servants are demanding a better life more than at any time before in Indian history," said Madhava Rao, 72, who has a popular Chennai-based blog on Indian society. "And unlike before, many young Indian families feel they can't just fire them like they used to. Lives are more busy; the joint family is not as common. Young professionals need them more than ever."

On the workers' side, shifting attitudes are being driven at least in part by the rise in the number of Indian television stations, which beam images of a better life. For many of the working poor, the new India is the one seen on billboards and in TV ads featuring well-dressed families, shiny new cars and spacious, air-conditioned homes.

"The great Indian dream is shown to the servants on TV everyday. How could they not want to be part of it?" Rao said. "They also see their employers growing richer. They want a better life, too."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company