Always on Call

M, cha anibi!” We were visiting a friend in the heat of a summer noon in Dimapur. The domestic ‘help’, or support staff, of the family was in the middle of her afternoon rest in her boiling hot room made worse by the flickering electricity when we called her out to make us tea. Each of us was casually dismissive of M’s need for rest despite knowing that she had been up and working since 5:00 AM, and will continue to work till, at least, 8:00 PM.

 

While her employers tried their best to provide a semi normal life – a bed, a phone, a fan – required for a human being to lead a semi decent life, the employers themselves were unaware of basic workers’ rights. M, from a family of many who could not be supported, had never been to school and certainly had no access to information or collectives that made her aware of her rights as a worker. Thus, domestic workers in most households are ‘always on call’, made to work at any hour, made to do any chore, without a schedule, without rest and, often, without pay.

 

A recent report published by The Morung Express, titled ‘Your home is my workplace: Empowering domestic workers,’ noted how “Domestic Workers constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in the society despite no comprehensive regulatory mechanism for this sector.” A vast majority of this section of domestic workers are women and children.

 

Sister Therese, now the Coordinator of the Ferrando Domestic Workers Alliance, Kohima city, has championed the cause of justice for child domestic labour in Nagaland for years. Through the Assissi Centre/Home, she has rescued and restored the lives of many abused child labour, particularly at the time when Adivasi children from Assam used to be routinely employed in homes here. It is heartening to read that she is at the forefront of organizing the domestic workers’ sector now. One of the aspects of this campaign includes conducting awareness programmes in schools and colleges “so they can empower students who have domestic help at home.”

 

In 2005 Human Rights Watch released Always on Call, a report documenting the endemic exploitation and abuse of child domestic workers in Indonesia. Girls described being lured with false promises of higher wages in cities without full details about the tasks they would perform, the hours they would be expected to work, or their inability to attend school. Most girls said they typically worked 14 to 18 hours a day seven days a week, with no day off. Many said that their employers forbade them from leaving the house where they worked, isolating them from the outside world, thus placing them at higher risk of abuse with fewer options for finding help.

 

The case of domestic workers from the North East, working in cities, is not so different. While many employers are kind and even provide, say, wholesome education to workers, the sector cannot be governed merely by the kindness of employers. It needs to be regulated by labour laws given the fact that more domestic workers, whether children or adults, are more abused than treated with kindness and care. For this, domestic work first needs to be acknowledged as work—domestic workers as ‘staff’ not ‘help’ with the right wages, fair working conditions, contracts and everything else that brings dignity to workers who set our homes straight.

 

June 11-16 is North East International Domestic Workers’ Week while June 16 is North East International Domestic Workers’ Day. Share your experiences/challenges at moitramail@yahoo.com