Domestic Work: With a Pinch of Salt


We are living in an era where domestic work is looked down upon when it comes to women. In fact domestic spaces were gendered domains of women historically. Most women of the house whether they are mothers, daughters, grand-mothers, sisters, nieces, aunties, any female member automatically gets rooted within their domestic chores. Sometimes such work is also a skilled qualification to find better marriage prospects and sometimes it becomes a drudgery which every woman has to go through whether young or old. But these days with liberated mindsets and influence of cookery shows, men are expected to complete the domestic chores. For men it becomes an advantage to find beautiful and much more successful female partners if they can cook up a few dishes, wash clean and dry clothes. Domestic work has never been a much sought after career option. It is informal, unpaid, invisible and messy most of the times. But for most of the families in urban and rural India domestic work is imposed on women irrespective of their qualifications, interests, designation at work place, age, caste and class variations.

I lived with families in rural Nagaland for months together where domestic work was women’s domain. They would enjoy working in the kitchen, cleaning, washing, cooking and also look after domestic animals without a sigh of distress. Women’s work in rural areas is shared with other women from the neighbourhood, extended family and friends. But in cities such sharing does not happen. Sometimes it is also a challenge for women to find space in the family, get accepted by the marital home and stay within a relationship with a spouse which compels her to do all the domestic chores on her own. In educated households we think that domestic work is shared with the male spouses but that is a myth. Women are sacrificing their careers, education and skills to fulfil domestic work demands. In urban areas child rearing, elderly care, disabled person care, in house patient care and any care work for dependents falls within the realm of domestic work. Even though needs are rising, support for such work is abysmal.

Domestic work in cities is done by a huge work force whose labour goes unnoticed and unrecognised. Domestic workers whether they are male or female fulfils this need of urban households. There are a few organisations who have voiced their demands for the rights of domestic workers in Guwahati city but such demands have not been addressed in the light of ILO standards. Domestic workers come from fringe areas of Guwahati and other neighbouring districts of Guwahati as well. Male domestic workers can negotiate better for themselves. They work in homes from a young age of 15-16 years in lieu of future employment in Government, PSUs or any such formal sector institution. Some continue with their studies as well and others expect entrepreneurial support from the owners in terms of driving taxis or running hotels and petty shops or even setting up their home based business. Male domestic workers find employment, support their families and also try and also marry the women whom they fancy within the urban context cutting across caste, class, religion and ethnicity barriers.

But when it comes to women domestic workers they are much more marginalised. Their expectations are limited to their monthly or daily wages. At most some of them wish to get married in their home towns or even in the city of their dreams where they work. Very few work with the employer family till they die. Recently some friends shared how their maids wanted to go home after living in the city particularly for the winters. Our home maid wishes to go home every month not just for herself but for all her extended family members at the cost of her wages which she misses when she is absent for more than 10 days in a month. She understands the implications yet she wants to go home every month. Women domestic workers are more concerned about the freedom of choice, mobiles, clothes and television shows and the markets in the cities. There are very few of them who have ambition about setting up their own enterprise, get into employment in the formal sector. These days maids who do part time work do not come every day. They have daily wages which ranges Rs 200-300 per day, while some are working for Rs 2000-3000 a month for 3-5 hrs per day with Sunday leave. The women workers are easily lured by different men who make fake promises to marry them and keep them happy. They end up marrying unemployed youths at times to get rid of domestic work and become survivors of diverse abuse, drudgery and disregard.

The women are not conscious about their future social security through domestic work. In fact most of the women domestic workers prefer to do part time job so that they can have free time for themselves in the evenings. Most women are single mothers and they are trying to educate their children through this work so that their children can liberate them from the white collared domestic drudgery. The women workers remain as sahayikas or helper which was coined by a local group called Maitri and it got very popular. But domestic worker rights have not been addressed yet. Employers are also hesitant to support the workers throughout their lifecycle changes and such workers do not find any other employment as they are non-literates. Male domestic workers are advantaged as they can easily learn driving and get elevated to be drivers and run taxi business, but the female workers remains in their jobs till they are old. Some of the women look for long term staying facilities, food, safety, free electricity and water, while others look for monetary compensation.

As for the employers, older generation prefers to support all the free amenities and cut down on cash so that the worker is bonded for life while the younger employers prefers a daily wage or monthly wage compensation system as a service charge for the work done by the women or male domestic workers. I remember meeting somebody at a local Xerox shop who came for mobile recharge for his employer who happened to be a lady. The shop-owner asked him all possible details about the employer regarding their travel plans, guest lists including the menu which was cooked for that day’s feast which was organised. Such free-flowing information gets floated very easily through service providers. It is time that service providers at affordable rates could organise domestic work through a safe and secured process so that such unequal equations and discrimination gets eliminated even before it emerges. Domestic work is a very important component of care work which gets side-lined through quick-fix arrangements in cities. Sometimes such arrangements could be very counter-productive, life-threatening and resource draining as well.

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Dr. Samhita Barooah
 is Educator and QueerUp Founder