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."
But to get there, they have to overcome long-standing prejudice. Disdain for domestic work in India is heightened by the caste system, a rigid hierarchy in which status and professions are inherited at birth. Jobs such as cleaning and sweeping are usually relegated to the lowest-level castes.
Unlike in many U.S. households, the children of India's middle and upper classes are rarely required to clean their rooms, mow the lawn or take out the garbage. Such manual labor is considered below their station, an idea with roots in the country's caste tradition.
Domestic workers say they are given little respect. They are the usual suspects when jewelry, cellphones or other household valuables disappear. In much of India, suspicion alone is enough to justify the firing of a maid or a cook. There are also reports of brutal beatings to punish domestic workers for infractions such as tardiness, broken dishes or spilled food.
The workers often occupy an intimate place in the Indian family structure, but many are not allowed to eat in the employer's house or use the family's plates and glasses. A common scene at restaurants in New Delhi is a forlorn-looking nanny sitting quietly nearby as the family feasts on a three-course meal. She is invited to the table only when the children cry or finish their meals. Her job is to rush them to the bathroom to wash their hands and faces.
"They lead separate existences under the same roof," said Muthu Kamraj, 30, an activist who recently organized a street protest for domestic workers in Bangalore and Chennai. "They are the invisible people who serve them tea and bathe their children, and yet they are often asked to eat their meals outside the house."
India's government has been slow to embrace legal reforms that could improve workers' lives. Critics say that is because the issue remains uncomfortable for the nation's leaders, most of whom have household workers.
"Everyone knows they, too, are scared of losing this lifestyle of privilege," said Virgil D'Sami, director of the Center for Street and Working Children in Chennai, which also organizes adult workers.
Her organization has been one of the first to hold meetings for domestic workers and their employers. Just six employers showed up for one recent meeting. One of them was Alamalai's, a woman who works in the software industry.
At the meeting, Alamalai and her employer spoke for the first time about how they could be better partners. Alamalai could come on time, dress better and call in on sick days, the employer said. For her part, Alamalai told her boss she needed more money to feed her family.
Her employer declined to be interviewed, saying only that she felt that Alamalai's work ethic had since improved and that she deserved a raise. Alamalai's pay was recently doubled. Then again, her employer also doubled her workload.
Still, Alamalai said she feels she has gained dignity.
"I dress neatly now," she said. "I realize that I want to do my job properly because cleaning houses is a good profession."
She stood proudly one recent afternoon in her one-room home in a working-class Chennai neighborhood. In one corner of the room were several sacks of rice, some fresh vegetables and a wedding album with photographs from her daughter's marriage. In the center of the room was her prized possession, a second-hand television.
After a long day of work recently, she watched a popular soap opera. In the episode, a maid's daughter becomes an engineer. Alamalai and her family cheered.