Major Indian festivals such as Diwali, Christmas, Onam, Eid and Pongal propel economic activity by boosting consumption. It’s great for the economy. But what lies invisible is how heavily this boost is subsidised by domestic workers.
During festivals, many households require additional help with cleaning, cooking, and other household chores. Domestic workers are automatically expected to take on this extra work. They may even be required to work on holidays or weekends, which can disrupt their personal lives. Accounts show how it does not go down well with workers:
“We also have a family and children. We also have to celebrate the festivals, so what if we are poor. We also need leave, we also celebrate and cook at home.”Päivi Mattila, Domestic Labour Relations in India: Vulnerability and Gendered Life Courses in Jaipur, Interkont Books 19, Helsinki, 2011, p. 197
All this, in most cases, without any additional compensation. If there is additional compensation, it is at the mercy of the employer. The expectation to undertake extra work, no questions asked, shows how little control workers have in determining their work and its boundaries. Efforts in setting boundaries at work can result in loss of employment. We also learn this from the narratives of domestic workers captured in this report on unionising domestic work in Karnataka:
“It is better to make an agreement with the employer at the time of joining work. If we put any conditions regarding leave and hike in wages, most of the time the employer simply say, ‘if you want to work, you work or else we will get someone else’. Actually, there will be many workers who will be ready to work for a lesser amount than what we are getting paid now. Considering this, we cannot demand a hike in wages, even if it is a genuine demand. Fear of termination and of someone waiting to replace me makes me work without expressing any dissent.”Suneetha Eluri and Ashok Singh, Unionising Domestic Workers: Case Study of the INTUC-Karnataka Domestic Workers Congress, ILO, 2013
No dissent no cry
Working without expressing dissent is a commonplace requirement in domestic workplaces. Most employers expect their domestic workers to be invisible and subservient. Many view workers “talking back” as enough rebellion to warrant dismissal from employment entirely. This flows from feudal, colonial and paternalistic ideas of their relationship, i.e. the jajmani relationship. The hangover of this relationship in modern domestic working spheres is best described by the term ‘culture of servitude’ explained by Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum as:
This is in line with why domestic workers continue to be treated as servants, i.e. dehumanised and denied any form of personhood. This is further confirmed by a report on employer’s attitudes towards domestic workers.
Scholars have noted that many of the disputes in domestic workspaces arise out of the disconnect between expectations of the employer and employee. While many domestic workers view, or wish to view, their work as contractual, employers largely continue to think of themselves as patrons or masters, rather than employers. This is precisely why employers refuse to recognise domestic workers’ work as work and their rights and entitlements as valid.
Bonus, not baksheesh
The culture of servitude also manifests in what domestic workers receive as compensation during festivals. Employers usually hand out gifts or baksheesh to their domestic workers with the belief that they’re being magnanimous. They may give old or new saris or utensils or sweets and occasionally a small cash bonus (only if requested). But what employers believe is their generosity, domestic workers may view as a denial of their rightful entitlement.
“We want an annual bonus, not your stale sweets.”
Some domestic workers are collectivising in unions to demand rights, fairer wages and better working conditions. Specifically in Bengaluru, domestic worker unions have three main demands: a festival bonus, a minimum wage and a weekly off. Over the last few years, their demand for cash bonus has organically transformed into a ‘Campaign for Bonus.’
The Campaign for Bonus was developed with the idea of shifting from “a paternalistic relationship symbolised by baksheesh and towards a new conceptualisation of the work done by domestic workers symbolised by the demand for a bonus.” Essentially, to move towards recognising the home as a place of work and domestic work as work.
Convention dictates that formal white collar workers receive a month’s salary as bonus. And so, in this Campaign, unions encouraged domestic workers to ask for a month’s salary as bonus in the festival season.
A 2019 report says that in the first year of the campaign, domestic workers wore a black ribbon on their sleeve during the festive season, explaining their demand for a bonus to their employers only if they asked. The next year unions gave out pamphlets meant for employers explaining the demand. By the third year, some of the employers had started giving a cash bonus. However, it was reported that the bonus did not amount to a month’s salary yet.