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20 August 2006Archive Subscribe for free by E-mail or Human News RSS feed

Life Goes On... The Spirit Of Domestic Workers

By F. Merlin Flower

The boy bends to collect water in his small bottle. Turning the tap nonchalantly, he waits while the bottle fills. Little does he realize the role played by Sudha, who had cleaned the tap and the surrounding area just before he had come. Sudha is one of the hundreds of millions of domestic workers of the world. Helpers in houses, offices and hostels come under the heading of domestic workers.

A toilet cleaner by profession, Sudha works in a firm which has taken up the cleaning contract for the maintenance of a prominent government office in Chennai, a city in India. Working from ten in the morning, she is "happy and contended" with the work. "I earn Rs.80 a day, and life just manages to roll on," she says. She had her daughter married when the girl was sixteen years old, and her son is in his eighth standard. At 38 she has two grandchildren. Though showing a cheerful face and smile, Sudha gets angry when the work increases. The reason? Even though Sudha's work is just to take care of the toilets, at times she cleans the nearby shops for "earning a bit more." "It is at these times that the tension goes up," she said.

Jaya works in a hostel in Chennai. Like Sudha, Jaya also feels tension from her work. She is clearly unhappy with her work earning Rs.1000 per month. "I have to work from 4:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night, and just an hour of rest in between," she explained. Jaya thinks that the salary given should be more for the work she does. She says, "But here I clean the toilets, cut the vegetables, clean the rooms and help in the kitchen. It's too much, and a day-to-day tension," she points out.

"Over-work combined with low wages can lead to tension and depression," says Basyam, Director of the Institute of Mental Health Chennai. He explained that in these cases the maids might cry, eat and sleep less and in extreme cases commit suicide. He said that it was important for the workers to find means to overcome the tension.

"When I am sad I pray," says Selvi, 23, who like Jaya also works in a hostel. Jaya meanwhile lives with the tension. She says she tries to forget the tension while sleeping. And Sudha tries to hide it with a smile.

Most of the domestic workers of the world are migrants, as are Jaya and Selvi. While Sudha got married and came to settle down in the city, Jaya and Selvi had come to the city in search of a job. The migration is more out of a need to support the family than for a better future. Though they live in the city they don't venture out of the work place. The only place they visit is the nearby shop to buy soaps or oil. Selvi's only outing is to the nearby church on Sundays. Most of the domestic workers don't know the city in which they live. As is common among domestic workers, none of them have education exceeding the seventh standard, although they do know how to read the boards of buses and newspapers in their vernacular. It was the sheer need for a job and a desire to support the family that led all three to become domestic workers.

Being a domestic worker at home is considered better by all three. They find the job easier. Jaya says that while working as a housemaid she only has the twin jobs of washing and helping out in the kitchen and "lots of time to take rest." Moreover, she says that the additional money given during festivals is additional income for the family. This is lacking while working in hostels or offices. The bonus from both the hostel and the office comes to nothing, echo Jaya and Sudha.

Bonus or not, Saraswathi is happy working as a maid in spite of the debts she owes to many. She cooks food for four families in an apartment. "It's sheer juggling," she says as a matter of fact. "I come to the apartment at six in the morning and prepare breakfast for the families one at a time."

Selvi, 23, is a domestic worker in Chennai, India.
Photo by F. Merlin Flower

The same holds true for lunch and dinner. At times the families themselves prepare the dinner. She gets about Rs.600 per family per month. How about holidays? "When I am ill, I take a day off but inform the people in advance," she says.

Jaya and Selvi are sent to the nearby doctors and have to be on their feet by evening. For them, headaches and back pain have become "everyday routine," as Jaya puts it. They are permitted to go to their native place once in a year. Sudha doesn't work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Selvi likes the present job, as her employers were more "understanding."

"I don't like it here," reminds Jaya, "I was working as a domestic help in a house and have been here for just over a month." Jaya is planning to leave the job as she feels that neither her employers nor the co-workers understand her. "I have two boys at home and I am going back to them," she says.

Jaya's children reside in the village with their grandmother; they doníŽt live with her. "If they did, their childhood could have been affected," says Bhasyam. "The mother may vent out the tension on her children," he said and added that it may lead the child to take drugs and join a gang of thugs or run away from the family.

Sudha does not want to talk about her relationship with her employers. A smile is the answer she presents.

Both Selvi and Jaya say they had not faced "severe problems like sexual harrassment" from their employers. "Harrassment is out of question as one needs to know how to safeguard and protect one's self-respect," said Selvi. She acknowledged that she does get occasional reprimands from her employers.

"Harrassment, if any, for workers can also lead to depression of the workers," says Bhasyam. But echoing the words of Selvi he said it was indeed a matter of protecting oneself.

Poverty in the family forced Selvi to turn into a domestic servant to support her family. One of her sisters is married while the other, like Selvi, is a domestic worker in a hostel.

These workers don't consider their jobs as domestic workers a dishonour. Sudha says that toilet cleaning was just a job. "It is for people who see it from outside that toilet cleaning is menial," she points out. For them it is life, and however tension filled it is, it brings food to the table.

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