Jeanne Devos: the voice of Indian domestic workers

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Regarded as a nuisance when she set up the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), Sister Jeanne Devos, a Belgian, working in India for over thirty years, has nonetheless succeeded in greatly transforming the situation of Indian domestic workers. The movement began in 1985 with small groups in Tamil Nadu. Today, these behind-the-scene workers have an identity, some rights and can count on a supportive group.

 

Why did you decide to defend the rights of domestic workers in India?

It was at the beginning of the 1980s. I already had some experience as an activist in India and I wanted to work with exploited women. I spoke with domestic workers and their employers and I was very surprised.

The women workers explained to me that they were living in a prison, sleeping beside rubbish bins, eating leftovers while the employers congratulated themselves for giving them a roof over their heads, something to eat and the right to watch television.

According to them, they were lucky and in society’s eyes, they should be grateful. This large difference of opinion really struck me. It occurred to me that “these workers did not have a voice to make themselves heard” and I wanted to help them express themselves.

 

How would you define your mission?

Very quickly, our movement, composed mainly of workers, set ourselves three objectives. The first was to give the workers back their dignity. In India, this is one of the few jobs that you can do without qualifications. You do it because you have no other choice. Furthermore, the majority of domestic workers have been almost “dehumanised” because of the treatment that they are often subjected to.

The second objective is to give them their rights because when we started they had none. Finally, the third is to give more power to the workers by organising training sessions where they can learn how to understand and defend their rights. This objective has become our main objective; it is connected to the other two.

Only a few years after setting up the movement, we had 12,000 groups all over India speaking 28 languages. It was at that moment that we realised through testimonies received that many children were employed as domestic workers.

We also understood that a lot of workers had been purchased by their employers, that there was a human trafficking problem. Finally, we realised that the media refused to address this subject because the public was not interested. These three problems became our main campaign topics.

 

 What difficulties did you encounter setting up the movement?

From the beginning, I was seen as a nuisance and certain employers threatened their domestic workers with dismissal if they attended meetings. If they carried out their threats however, we had other jobs to offer them. We had our own ways of responding to this type of attack. Some bosses also called me to ask “how can I pay what you are asking? I can’t afford it”. I also received death threats.

It is mostly the mafia that is behind all this. Each time a case goes before the Courts we have to be careful. We have sometimes had to abandon a case. Sometimes the power of money forces our hand, like in the case of the badminton champion prosecuted for abusing a little girl and who was acquitted. We asked the little girl if she wanted to go on fighting and she replied: “no, if we go on, they will give even more money to my father to get drunk”.

 

Have opinions changed since you started your fight? Is public opinion becoming aware of its responsibility?

Yes, our struggle has had a large impact on the population. One day, a young 9 year old girl was killed and her employers claimed that she had committed suicide. Their young neighbour, who is a member of our movement, knew what had really happened.

At approximately five in the morning, the time that the women leave for work, the young girl went out and told them “today we will not go to work because one of us has been killed”.

An hour later, 5,000 women were protesting on the streets. It was so incredible that some employers began cooking for these women instead of going to work.

This story attracted the interest of the media and I was able to take part in a show where the presenter asks a question and the public responds. The first question was “Are we responsible for a child who works in a home?” 90% of people answered “No”. I intervened and told them that “the rules can change. Life is more important than a lock on a door. If a child is killed behind a closed door, it is a question of opening the doors”.

After my input, the results changed and 70% of people said that they were responsible. Following this, a draft bill was passed banning child domestic labour. It still exists in the remote villages but in the big cities, a large percentage of the public are vigilant, ensuring that this is no longer the case.

 

Does your movement and the trade union, which now has a presence in ten States, do you really have the power to improve the labour conditions of domestic workers?

Domestic workers are a very sensitive category of workers. In 2010, for example, the Ministry for the protection of women and children introduced a draft bill against sexual harassment at the workplace. This would have covered all types of workers except domestic workers. We fought against this and they were included in the draft bill a year and a half later.

Our next challenge is to have ILO Convention 189 ratified. This will take time because the employers and several laws in India oppose this. Nevertheless, the debate is open! Furthermore, thanks to our struggle, some State governments are starting to implement the principles of the Convention.

Today, we have the guarantee of a minimum wage in 10 States, a day off per week in three States, a social security system in seven States, etc. For the first time, governments are starting to recognise domestic workers.