Community life competence for stimulating domestic workers’ response to their working conditions

I had the opportunity to facilitate community life competence process with domestic workers. This is part of the work for which Reiko and Suneetha from ILO Delhi office have invited us to use the approach to develop a participatory monitoring tool for the domestic workers on their working conditions. The event brought together domestic workers, their families, NGOs, employers, Trade unions and ILO staff . We saw slight changes emerge which gave us hope. Reflections showed that strength-based approach, community life competence can be a way to stimulate collective domestic workers’ community response.

Domestic workers, their families and the community do not view their work with dignity. This is primarily due to the notion of housework--value is not given to women’s work in their homes, and furthermore, even paid work in others’ homes. “Who thinks domestic work as work? It is not valued…we wash others dirty dishes…my daughter does not like to tell others about my work because she considers it demeaning. My husband regards my work as extension of what I do at home. Domestic workers do not need any extra skills”,  said a domestic worker during the home visit.  

It is also undervalued because poor, migrant women often are engaged in it. Additionally, domestic workers are usually from lower castes. One domestic worker mentioned “I hide my caste from the employer who will never employ me if she knows I am a valmiki.” All these contribute to the inferior status of their work, both in their own minds and in society. So domestic workers receive no recognition as workers and are hence paid low wages.

 Therefore, application of SALT can help domestic workers recognize their own strengths. Said an old domestic worker participant " I liked the session that we are all human. Everyone has always told me what to do because they think they are better than me."

Engaging the family and neighbourhood is key so that they can also appreciate and support the domestic workers. A domestic worker remarked that her neighobours gossiped about her when the participants did a SALT visit to her home. “ They said that she thinks that by roaming around with educated people a domestic worker will also become a madam.” Domestic workers are often unable to care for their own families, leaving their own children alone for the whole day. Similarly, older domestic workers feel insecure about sustaining themselves. Therefore collective community support can help provide solutions to so many of their challenges. 

Employer-employee is a complex, multi-layered relationship and one of domination and dependency. Interestingly, this  is an area of work where the employer and the employee are mostly females. However where one of them is not valued! As a home is the site of work, it makes workplace informal. It becomes difficult to demand rights as workers when boundaries between formal and informal are blurred. Workers are reluctant to follow a formal work structure as it will take away flexibility that is critical for them. For instance, workers sometimes do not want a compulsory weekly off as they prefer to take holidays when they need. Similarly is the case of wages. “My daughter does not keep well…so I prefer to work for an employer can give me more leave and less wages.” As domestic workers begin to appreciative their own self they will develop the confidence to negotiate with the employers. During our event domestic workers recognized that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. If they accept respect from employers they too need to provide professional services to the employers.

Domestic workers seldom have an organised mechanism for collective bargaining.  I had used community life competence approach with domestic workers on HIV in Thane (India). I saw that as women realized their individual strengths they also begin to appreciate the strengths in other women and began to come together. This will help them engage with employers in discussion around rights of domestic workers.

Wanyi who lives in Singapore and was with us during the event said she was amazed by the resilience of domestic workers and was confident that domestic workers were capable of achieving the dreams they had compiled during the event. 

Reiko from ILO summed it up beautifully that we need to tackle the root cause of the issue…working at the individual, family and community level if we want the domestic workers to take ownership of the issue of their working conditions.

I end with a quote from Aarti a domestic worker at the end of our event, “ I have realized my strengths and those of my other sisters. We can come forward to respond to our own issues. NGOs and others can just be with us.” What if all domestic workers began to take lead? Can this become a movement?


Note: These are my personal reflections from my experience of working with communities and facilitating this event with domestic workers. I am not an expert on domestic work issues:-)Thanks to ILO team for giving us an opportunity to explore strengths of domestic workers.

My other blog on domestic workers and their dreams

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Comment by barsha shrestha on June 18, 2015 at 11:58am

Happy to see women in action :) thank you for sharing 

Comment by Jan Somers on June 17, 2015 at 8:03pm

Learning for all involved! Congrats !


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