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Nuns give domestic workers a voice

Efforts on behalf of servants could pay off if India ratifies accord

  • Rita Joseph, New Delhi
  • India
  • July 1, 2011
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For 40 years, Saraswati Devi was a maid in a wealthy family’s home in New Delhi. As she reached her mid-60s, she started to grow a little less energetic, a little more forgetful; understandable for a woman of her age who has worked hard all her life.

But her employers did not share that understanding.  Saraswati was thrown onto the street.

Now she lives in a home for the destitute. Her friend there is a tribal woman who was also a domestic servant. Her boss dumped her when her health deteriorated after a miscarriage. She had grounds to file a police complaint against him, but she could not identify the address. In all her years of working there, she had never been allowed out of the house.

“Cases of exploitation like these would soon stop once India ratifies the Geneva convention,” says Sister Jeanne Davos, a Belgium-born member of the Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize thanks to her tireless efforts for domestic workers’ rights.

Ever since a chance meeting with a 13-year-old who suffered rape, impregnation and abortion, Sister Davos has championed the cause through the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, which she founded 26 years ago.

“Domestic workers have no voice,” she says. “They are unseen, unheard and unreached. The Church in India has worked for decades to help them gain dignity.”

Now there is a chance that real progress may be made.  At the United Nations’ ILO convention in Geneva last month, attended by Sister Davos as well as numerous heads of state, a landmark accord was passed which will protect domestic workers worldwide, including the estimated 4.75 million in India.

“The accord ensures decent conditions because it recognizes that domestic workers are entitled to all the rights enjoyed by other professionals,” says Sister Davos.  “I’m hopeful that the government will ratify it soon.”

Her colleague Sister Lissy Joseph, who was also at the convention, claims that the government has agreed to support the accord, after pressure from NGOs including the National Domestic Workers’ Movement. Their campaign comprised a series of public meetings and a petition of 1.5 million signatures, which was submitted to Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance.

“The convention ensures that domestic workers get regular working hours, weekly time off, vacations, maternity leave and social security, besides protection from all forms of abuse,” says Sister Joseph. “We will now press the government to ratify it within the stipulated time of 18 months.”

They are also calling for the inclusion of domestic workers in the recently introduced law to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace; currently they are excluded.

A note of caution has been sounded by Father Chetan Chandran, another participant at the convention, who says the Indian government is not keen to ratify the accord, even though their official team in Geneva supported it. Instead, he believes the government wants to formulate its own policy for domestic workers.

But Father Jose Vattakuzhy, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops’ commission for labor, shares the positive views of the sisters. “We will leave no stone unturned until the government ratifies the accord,” he says.

Related links:

Nun protests for rights of domestic workershttp://www.ucanews.com/2010/12/03/indian-nun-protests-for-rights-of-domestic-workers

Indian nun unites domestic workers http://www.ucanews.com/2011/01/11/indian-nun-unites-domestic-workers
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