Indian sister shines spotlight on exploited domestic workers
Published by Crux on 14 December 2020
Inés San Martín
Rome Bureau Chief
An unprecedented report published Dec. 11 looked into the working conditions of thousands of domestic workers in India, a majority of who work in slave-like conditions.
Credit: courtesy Arise foundation
ROSARIO, Argentina – A nun in India, with the help of several volunteers, has led the largest survey of domestic workers ever conducted, providing unprecedented insights into working conditions for one of the country’s most oft-exploited sectors.
“Our organization is dedicated to women, girls and children especially the most vulnerable ones,” said Sister Rose Paite. “Currently we are working for about 20,000 domestic workers in North East India and there are no other women as vulnerable and as exploited as they are.”
When it comes to India, she said, close to 50 percent of the female workforce is made up of domestic workers, hence her push “to ensure their dignity and rights,” among other reasons because she believes it will “contribute to the economy of the world.”
“I don’t want these large numbers of women who contribute to their families and to the society and the world at large to be forgotten and unrecognized,” Paite told Crux. “I want the world to know they are workers like any other workers.”
Yet legally speaking, she said, they are not treated as “any other worker.” According to information collected by Paite and a network of Catholic nuns from the Center for Development Indicatives (CDI) across six northeast Indian states — Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland — 99 percent of the 12,000 domestic workers surveyed only have “oral contracts” of employment, and an estimated 74 percent has “no access to medical services.”
At least six percent of those surveyed had began working before the age of 14, but the surveys targeted an adult sample and as such, they underrepresent the incidence of child labor.
But the survey also revealed that a large majority of these women who work as maids, cooks and other domestic chores work seven days a week and most of them, are not given a single day of annual leave without having their pay cut.
The information was collected through a span of four years by the nuns who work together at the CDI, a part of Arise’s anti-slavery network in India. Arise is an NGO that focuses on fighting modern-day slavery throughout the world. Though a lay-ran organization, there are several religious sisters on its board of directors, including Sister Pat Murray, a Loreto Sister who serves as the Executive Secretary of the International Union of the Superiors General, representing more than 350,000 religious women across the world.
CDI is a frontline service provider to at-risk populations and a registered non-profit organization, directed by Paite. The domestic worker surveys were collected as part of CDI’s “Domestic Workers Union Structure” project, through which it has registered over 18,000 domestic workers in 12 cities of the region into 600 groups. Those registered receive capacity-building support, rights training, and a platform for advocacy and campaigning.
There are an estimated four million domestic workers in India. Globally, the International Labor Organization (ILO) put the number at 67 million people over the age of 15 worldwide, 80 percent of whom are women. It also estimates that the number of child domestic workers who are between 5-14 years old at 11.2 million globally, and India’s census puts the country’s figure for child domestic workers at 0.52 million.
The information collected is the largest single set of surveys of domestic workers to day, and Arise presented it as a project that “feeds into the little-examined tradition of human rights data-gathering by Catholic sisters, and it’s a testament to the value of frontline research.”
Luke De Pulford, director of Arise foundation, told Crux that “for too long the work of sisters has been sidelined, diminished and patronized. At Arise we have found that you only have to scratch the surface of their work to find extraordinary things.”
“When Sr. Rose asked me if we would help find her some academics to analyze her surveys of domestic workers, I didn’t for a second imagine that she had collected the largest data set on the subject in the world,” he said. “For us at Arise, it’s just another example of why this group of people serving on the margins must be heard and properly supported by the wider human rights community.”
De Pulford helped Paite have the Rights Lab of the University of Nottingham analyze the data.
Domestic workers represent an estimated 24 percent of the 16 million people in forced labor worldwide. It’s an unregulated and informal sector with high incidence of exploitation and abuse, often from migrants or socially discriminated populations.
Many of those in forced labor as domestic workers are victims of human trafficking recruited under false promises of “labor agents.” It’s a sector hidden from view beyond the walls of private homes, and until this report, titled “Beyond the walls: Microdata on domestic workers in North East India” and published Dec. 11, there was little to no available research.
Among other things, the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham recommended formal registration of domestic workers, as today they’re not seen as having employment in the Indian system. By not being recognized under labor laws, domestic workers have not legal protection whatsoever. They also suggested that India ratified a recommendation of the ILO, adopted in 2011, that aims at improving the working and living conditions of tens of millions of domestic workers.
The nearly 12,000 surveys offer a unique opportunity to understand people at high risk of labor exploitation whose lives are hidden from view—whose work was previously unobservable in such a detailed, large-scale way. The information opens a window into not only these workers’ lives and circumstances, but also a pressing global problem of exploited labor; one that sits at the intersection of sustainable development, human rights, labor rights, and criminal justice.
According to Paite, the Catholic Church can, and should, work in support of initiatives of the ILO and adopt all its recommendations, even if the rest of the world neglects them.
“Religious women and all the congregations can join in this campaign and take forward the issues of domestic workers in the convents, in the Church, through dialogue and ensure justice,” she said on Friday. “They are our fellow women and we cannot neglect them. The Church and Church-based agencies should join hands and allot sufficient funds to empower the domestic workers, and together we shall win the battle.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma