On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Rang De team member Lydia Thomas writes about the struggles of a domestic worker and why it is important to include ‘her’ in our conversations
Imagine your life partner made most of the decisions of the household finances, including what you earn, leaving very little up to you. Imagine having to spend almost half your combined annual income on expenses for your children’s education, from school fees and books to uniforms and tuition.
Now imagine having to wait for over half an hour in a bank just because you cannot read or write and there is no one available to help you withdraw some money you desperately need, from your own bank account. Having to get through life like this, would you not do your best to give your children the best education and future that you possibly can?
These are questions that struck us from just a few hours of a day in the life of some of the domestic workers we met in Bangalore city, who figure among 50 million others across the country. For decades, they have been essential to the smooth functioning of most of our homes, but have had to collectively struggle and bargain for rights as basic as social security and minimum wages.
For most domestic workers, working in more houses doesn’t necessarily mean an increased income. While many households take advantage of their toil and labour, the fact that there are so many of them desperate to make a living makes it harder for them to earn a better wage. And to add to it, market forces of supply and demand predetermine the price of their work regardless of its value, leaving very little to be gained from bargaining for more.
Anjali* is one such domestic worker in her mid-thirties. We spoke to her sitting on the doorsteps of her neighbour’s house situated in a group of tenements somewhere in Jayanagar, Bangalore. The smile on Anjali’s face was betrayed by her invariably soulful eyes the whole time she spoke to us. Anjali went to school only till class 8, so cannot read or write much. She tells us she bought a smartphone recently, just because the private school that her children go to sends parents important updates about school fees and leaves only over WhatsApp or SMS.
The children’s school fees increases every year without fail, she says. This year, the top management took a decision to change the board to CBSE without consulting parents like her, who will find it extremely difficult to meet the higher fee amount that comes with such a change. In addition to that, the school authorities suggest to her that she may want to move her children to a government school if she cannot afford the fees. She says she didn’t go to school, so “I have had to struggle and work really hard to be able to send my children to a private school so that they one day have a chance at a good job.”
Anjali and her husband bring in less than Rs 2 lakh annually between the two of them. Including school fees and expenses for their two children that amount to almost Rs1 lakh, she spends Rs 1000 on each child’s tuition fee because school lessons clearly aren’t enough. The school charges an annual donation fee every year, which if not paid in time, the children cannot enter school. When we ask how long she’s worked as a domestic worker, she goes on to tell us that this is what she has always done for a living. “If I was educated, I would have got a better job. I can’t even read my children’s school diary, how will I teach them?”
In India, domestic work is the employment of choice for most women like Anjali because it needs no special training or skill or education. Just by virtue of her gender – the expectation of being centred in motherhood and the home and everything to do with it – she is qualified to take up the job. In no pre-employment interview she must have been asked, “are you sure you can do a good job of the dishes and mopping the floor?”
In history, Women’s Day has its origins in drawing attention to the difficulties of women workers. In fact, the first ever nationally observed Women’s Day in 1909 took place in New York in the United States where garment workers came together to protest their working conditions. Almost a hundred years later, we still have domestic workers in India having to struggle to draw attention to their difficulties.
This International Women’s Day on March 8 and every other day, let us be mindful of the fact that household domestic labour is invariably expected to be the duty of women force, including our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, wives.
It is not enough that we say “we should treat our domestic helps better” and put the onus on the individual. However important that is, we must not fail to consider the larger economic, social and political context in which inequity exists. In our capacity at Rang De, we’re currently working on a product that will help extend our dream of financial inclusion for all – including this indispensable labour force – in the work we do. If you’re curious or interested to know more about what we’ve got up our sleeve, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at email@example.com
About Lydia: Lydia Thomas is a member of the Impact Team at Rang De. She met and interviewed domestic workers in Bangalore as part of research for Rang De’s upcoming P2P platform.
Impact team at Rang De consists of go-getters who take every challenge in their stride and is forever ready to walk that extra mile to make change happen!