Nuns amplify rights of domestic workers in Bihar

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By G. Leema Rose 

Patna: Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) began working with the domestic workers in Bihar in 1985 when they came in contact with the worker who was abused by the employer.

The employer beat the girl and threw her out of the family. The local parish priest of the Catholic Church at Manipur, Patna contacted ICM nuns and requested them to take up the issue.

Meanwhile, the nuns were finding ways to involve in social work.

After tackling the case successfully, the nuns then started organizing the interstate migrant domestic workers in Bihar. They visited different houses where the workers were working and started gathering them on Sundays.

Most of the going girls were from the tribal areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, and West Bengal. They had no one to lean on in this unknown city and most of them were placed by the greedy agents who do not turn back after placing them. They were abused physically and no one was there to hear their cry for justice.

More and more workers started joining the Sunday classes, and they had their peer group to share their joys and woes. After 10 years of this progress for the welfare and the rights of the domestic workers, the sisters started placing the workers in families with the contract signed by the worker, employer, and the staff.

Later in and around 1995, the main office for the domestic workers was established in Bihar with the support of the National Domestic Workers Movement (DWM) in the western Indian city of Mumbai.

Sister Jeanne Devos, ICM, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, founded NDWM in 1985. It is a movement and an NGO working with domestic workers and promoting their rights. Today, it has its wings in 23 states of India.

Sister Maggie ICM was the coordinator for 15 years, and she organized more and more migrant domestic workers and started Self-Help Groups among the part-time domestic workers with the support of the government of Bihar.

We started working with the child domestic workers enabling them to study through bridge schools and enrolling them into the formal schools.

At the field level, the part-time domestic workers living in and around 120 slum areas of Patna were organized. We started lobbying for identity as workers and not maids, servants, or helpers.

A helper is not entitled to salary, but the worker is entitled to her salary and all other privileges other workers enjoy. Many of the domestic workers started demanding holidays on Sundays and emergency and sick leave. They bargained for a better salary and there was a steady increase in their salaries after our regular intervention and training.

I have been involved with domestic workers since 2007.

In 2011, the Bihar Domestic Workers Union was registered. We, on the whole, felt the need for forming a union for domestic workers to get dignity, identity, justice, and rights and for a better representation of the workers.

Under the umbrella of the union, we regularly train the domestic workers into becoming leaders and agents of change. We have formed around 150 leaders in different areas of Patna Bhagalpur, Darbhanga, Bhojpur and Buxar  districts of Bihar. They, too, are involved in organizing the workers and bringing visibility to the union.

Today, after the completion of the ninth year of the unionization process, the domestic workers can take up the cases and fight for their rights and recognition. There is much solidarity among the workers, and they can deal the cases like false accusations of theft, physical abuse, and non-payment of wages.

Now we have around 5000 domestic workers (for 2020) in the Bihar union and around 45000 domestic workers in the National Domestic Workers Federation that consists of 13 state unions.

We support the members to get social security schemes and help them to get their supportive documents. We, too, lobby with the state and federal government for the recognition of domestic workers as workers and national legislation.

In different states, we had to approach the courts to file the public interest litigation to include the domestic workers in the minimum wage schedule and get the domestic workers’ welfare boards formed. We have been successful in five states in which governments did not have any schemes for domestic workers.

After the amendment in the labor laws, the challenges have increased as we have to fight again from the start. The present government has been diluting the labor laws where the workers can be hired and fired at will.

The only strength is unionization. Until the labor force is united, nothing can shake them from getting their rights and their voices heard for justice and dignity.

(G. Leema Rose, a member of Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a social worker).

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