CHENNAI: The term ‘working women’ is usually associated with offices, contracts, structured salaries and dignity. But for a large section of the unorganised workforce, the domestic workers, the four walls of a house is what is work, with no rules and contracts binding them. They remain one of the most common victims of workplace violence, which very often goes unreported due to fear and lack of awareness — something that needs to be noted on Arpil 28, World Day for Safety and Health at Work.
Though domestic workers were included under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in 2012, the implementation is a lot harder. “Unlike a usual workplace where there is one employer and many employees, here there is one employee who has multiple employers, making regulation extremely tough,” says K R Renuka, director of Centre for Women’s Development and Research (CWDR), an NGO that has been working with domestic workers since 1993.
“Ten years back, the domestic workers were not even treated as human beings. Today, it is a little better” she says. Cases of sexual harassment were very common, whether it was staring or deliberately brushing against the worker. But if the women raised the issue, the most common threat was being accused of a theft.
“Most women who have faced harassment prefer to quit the place, rather than getting involved in police cases,” she says.
In the past three years, she adds, they have not received too many complaints, because employers are now more cautious, with more workers joining trade unions.
She estimates that the number of domestic workers in the city is 22 lakh, of which now a small percentage are members of trade unions. But numbers are rising, and Renuka works with a team of group leaders in various slums across the city. The women also help in getting more workers registered with the welfare board and into CWDR’s trade union, called Manushi.
Being a part of groups will give them more dignity, Renuka says, and there is safety in a close-knit community. She recalls an incident where a 65-year-old woman was beaten up by her employer for some domestic argument, and was later locked in a kitchen and even threatened by the children in the house with a knife. “Another worker in the apartment overheard the fight and called me, and we got police to act. An FIR was filed against the employer and the police told me it is the first time a domestic worker was the complainant and not the accused.” But even though the police was ready to arrest the employer, the woman later withdrew the case after the employer asked for forgiveness.
But a new trend, she notes, is that many young professionals from IT and other industries realise the value of domestic work, and often treat their employees better than the older generation. “But we want to have a situation where a woman, on joining domestic work can have a written contract with increments, leaves, a notice period and other rules.”
Credits New Indian Express