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From Invisibility to Action: Transforming the Lives of Domestic Workers

The journey of a domestic workers collective in Jorhat, Assam

In India 4.75 million people are domestic workers, of which 3 million are women. Despite their overwhelming numbers, domestic workers face an alarming lack of recognition from the state and administrative bodies. While indispensable within households, they remain invisible when it comes to acknowledging their rights. Adding to their challenges is the devaluation of their work and self-worth, as generations of patriarchal norms have been internalized, leaving them unaware of their agency to challenge these unjust systems.

In 2017, YUVA formed Griho Karmi Adhikar Surkhsya Samiti (GASS) in Guwahati as a platform for domestic workers to raise their demands. This domestic workers’ collective today functions across various areas in 2 cities in Assam – Guwahati and Jorhat. 

GASS has been instrumental in advocating for legal protections for domestic workers. Its advocacy efforts have resulted in increased awareness among policymakers and the general public about the issues faced by domestic workers. This has led to important discussions and initiatives aimed at improving the working conditions, social security, and overall well-being of domestic workers in the state.

Since 2021, through its dedicated work in Jorhat, GASS has been able to bring the plight of domestic workers to the forefront. It strives to create a more just and equitable society where their contributions are acknowledged and their rights are upheld. This article focuses on GASS’s work in Jorhat and the impact it has had so far. 

The Plight of Domestic Workers in Jorhat

Jorhat is the second-largest city in Assam and serves as an important cultural, educational, and commercial hub in the region. Jorhat has a significant population of domestic workers who play a crucial role in the daily functioning of households and contribute to the local economy.

In Jorhat, domestic work serves as a vital source of livelihood for a substantial number of individuals, particularly women. Many individuals from marginalized communities, including those from rural areas and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, migrate to Jorhat in search of employment opportunities, and domestic work often becomes their primary source of income.

However, domestic workers in Jorhat face numerous challenges and inequalities. The lack of formal recognition and inadequate legal protections contribute to their vulnerability. Many domestic workers in the city are employed informally without proper contracts, which leaves them exposed to exploitation, unfair wages, long working hours, and limited access to social security benefits.

The patriarchal norms deeply ingrained in society often devalue the work performed by domestic workers, perpetuating a cycle of low wages and poor working conditions. Additionally, the invisibility of domestic work exacerbates the challenges faced by domestic workers, as their contributions often go unnoticed and unacknowledged.

In this context, organizations like Griho Karmi Adhikar Surkhsya Samiti (GASS) have emerged as important advocates for domestic workers’ rights in Jorhat. Through its efforts, GASS aims to address systemic issues and bring about positive changes in the lives of domestic workers by raising awareness, providing support, and advocating for policy reforms.

The Challenges of Organising Domestic Workers 

Since domestic workers are unorganised across the town, it took the collective time to gather them in order to generate awareness. It was also difficult to identify the areas and pockets where the domestic workers resided. After getting in touch with street vendors, Mridula Kalita, Community Organizer for YUVA in Jorhat, was able to gather information on domestic workers. That’s when she came to know that most of the workers in Jorhat are migrants who stay in rental houses. These migrants moved from the remote villages of Jorhat into the town.

The domestic workers are mostly employed in the houses of individuals who work in higher educational institutions or administrative offices in Jorhat.

Junaki Das, President, GASS Jorhat

A section of domestic workers used to be employed in tea gardens earlier. However, due to the lack of social security and less wages, they decided to take up domestic work instead. 

“Domestic workers work throughout the day. This made it difficult for them to dedicate time towards the collective’s initiatives,” said Mina Hazarika, Vice President, GASS Jorhat. “Additionally, another challenge was to address the issue of minimum wage. The domestic workers were being paid less than the amount they were entitled to receive. This makes it tough for them to run their families.”

Furthermore, domestic workers are exposed to discrimination in terms of religion and caste and are also victims of harassment by employers. 

Inspite of this, the collective embarked on an ambitious mission to reach out to 30 different locations in Jorhat throughout the year. From Rajamoidam (east of Jorhat) to Kamalaboria (west of Jorhat), the collective left no stone unturned in its efforts to reach out to workers to raise awareness on their rights. 

Establishing a Functional Convenor Committee for Collective Leadership

A structured convenor committee of 8-10 members was formed in order to facilitate the collective’s functioning. The committee decided to hold monthly group meetings, reach out to more domestic workers and network with members of the district’s labour commission and different civil society groups.

“Among the 19 wards in Jorhat, the collective has successfully reached out to and created an impact in 15 wards,” Mridula Kalita said.  “GASS has established branches in these 15 wards and has facilitated important discussions among self-supporting groups. Domestic workers who were not aware of their rights now come together to discuss various issues and voice their concerns.”

Through its district committee and extensive branch network, GASS has established itself as a powerful force in advocating for the rights, recognition, and dignity of domestic workers in Jorhat.

Empowering Domestic Workers Through Awareness and Capacity-Building

The absence of a rights-based organisation in Jorhat became a solid reason for the establishment of the collective in the town.

“After holding discussions with the domestic workers, we were able to understand the issues that the collective could focus on,” said Mridula Kalita, Community Organizer, YUVA,  Jorhat. “We seek to explore and work towards the rights of domestic workers.” 

While there are multiple organisations working for the cause of unorganised workers, Jorhat did not have any specific organisation that could mobilise and collectivise domestic workers. As the cases of employer harassment rose, the need for collective action was realised.

When the domestic workers are collectivised, they can raise some common demands that would benefit all of them. The demands of domestic workers will go unheard unless raised collectively.

Renu Rai, Vice President, GASS Jorhat

When group meetings were held by the collective, it came to light that the domestic workers were not even aware of the social security and protection they were entitled to. In order to expand their knowledge on the same, awareness sessions were conducted. Slowly, the domestic workers were enlightened on what their rights were and why they should demand them. 

In Jorhat alone, the GASS collective conducted 32 awareness meetings across various outreach areas over a period of one year. These meetings served as platforms for workers and members of the community to engage in meaningful discussions about vital topics such as the Social Security Act, domestic violence, self-help groups, and legal entitlements. 

Additionally, eight capacity-building workshops were held specifically for domestic and unorganised workers, equipping them with valuable knowledge about their rights and avenues for support. These workshops covered a diverse range of topics pertaining to the challenges faced by domestic workers, what demands they should be raising and how these demands should be addressed. Further, the workshops also explored how the domestic workers’ collective could be strengthened and took up issues surrounding gender sensitization.

Forming Self-Help Groups and Engaging with Civil Society

In order to facilitate regular communication with domestic workers, the collective began to form Self-Help Groups. These self-help groups not only addressed the issues of workers but also helped them develop the habit of saving money. A workshop was organised in collaboration with the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM) in order to generate awareness about the functioning of the self-help groups.

After creating awareness among workers, the collective decided that it was time to reach out to other civil society groups and employers. 

Recognising Contributions and Fostering Solidarity

Recognising the significance of important dates, the GASS collective organised workers in Jorhat to celebrate and acknowledge their contributions. International Women’s Day, International Labour Day, International Domestic Workers Day, Independence Day, and World Cities Day were observed with great enthusiasm, fostering a sense of solidarity and highlighting the importance of these occasions in honouring workers’ achievements. 

In addition to simply observing these days, we took it a step further by imparting knowledge about various aspects concerning domestic workers.

Mridula Kalita, Community Organizer, YUVA,  Jorhat

On the occasion of International Women’s Day in 2022, for the very first time in the town of Jorhat, domestic workers from the GASS collective came together to put forth demands pertaining to their rights. What made this movement more powerful was the fact that no other group had spoken for the rights of the domestic workers in Jorhat. This also formed the foundation for the visibility of domestic workers in Jorhat.

On World Cities Day, the collective came up with a human chain programme and held posters and placards to demand their right to the city. 

In June 2022, GASS organised a first-of-its-kind health camp in order to help domestic workers during the floods. 

“When the health camp was organised, the domestic workers felt happy about the fact that it was organised exclusively for them,” said Ashamoni Tanti, Secretary, GASS Jorhat. “These domestic workers have never accessed healthcare facilities before. They’d not visit doctors. The health camp changed that for them.”

Demanding Rights and Recognition: Taking Action for Change

On 8th March 2023, the domestic workers organised a public gathering and wrote to the district collector and chief minister about their demands.

Over the last year, GASS focussed on raising awareness among the domestic worker community in Jorhat. It highlights the importance of collective action in order to bring about change. Due to its consistent efforts, GASS Jorhat has also been noticed by the authorities. 

The collective reached out to the district labour commission and was assured that the commission would solve grievances pertaining to minimum wages. Additionally, the domestic workers submitted a memorandum with their demands to the district collector, which was further forwarded to the chief minister. Their demands included a paid leave policy, maternity leave, social security, health insurance, educational scholarships and a pension scheme.

What lies ahead

“We don’t just function on our own but try to establish ties with other NGOs, social organisations and labour unions,” said Mridula. “Through advocacy networking, we work to solve issues pertaining to the rights of domestic workers.”

The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008 has not been implemented effectively in the state of Assam. The Act demands that every state should have its own legislation pertaining to unorganised workers. However, this recommendation has not been implemented in Assam. The Act also recommends the establishment of a state board for domestic workers. Again, this has not been implemented in the state. The collective wants a law as well as a welfare board established in the state to ensure legal recognition and social protection for domestic workers.

“One of our goals is to get the government to establish state legislation for the welfare of domestic workers,” said Mamoni Bhuyan, Assistant Secretary, GASS Jorhat. “We also hope to educate and empower all domestic workers about their rights.”

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