Into the city

Domestic workers tell their stories.

Why don't you do a film about us, the domestic workers? A film about our lives and what we have to deal with both in the city and the village.' Pratima Baa, a domestic worker working at the house of a friend in Delhi, posed this question while serving me and my friend tea, as I talked about my latest documentary project involving rural women in Haryana. The fact that I made films on women's issues, yet had overlooked a group of women whose poverty had forced them to migrate and work in the city as domestic workers – and without whose help the lives of many working women would have difficulty functioning – was not lost on me. Pratima had run away at age 14 from a village in Orissa to earn a living as a domestic worker in Delhi; she subsequently became my assistant cameraperson and sound recordist for the very same documentary she had suggested – Delhi Bound for Work.

For migrant women, the live-in aspect of domestic work, coupled with the fact that they rarely have familial or community support to rely on in the city, makes them particularly vulnerable to poor pay, long hours at work, exploitation, and physical and sexual abuse at their workplace. No wonder that the UN Human Rights Commission, in 2000, declared domestic work to be a form of contemporary slavery. In India alone, according to official sources, there are an estimated 4.5 million domestic workers, though NGOs working in this area estimate the number to be as high as 90 million, of which over 85 percent are women and young girls. However, such statistics do not reveal the complex reality of women eking out a living alone in cities. Most research on domestic workers, whether journalistic or activist, typically focuses on trafficking. Consequently, the 'woman as a victim' discourse has a silencing effect on the personal agency of migrant women, often ignoring the complexities involved in their migration.

This documentary, a collaborative venture between me as a filmmaker and the women workers, was an effort to provide both a platform through which they could articulate their feelings and desires. Over my two decades of filmmaking, I had pondered on and resolved some of the dilemmas about the filmmaker's role, the constant negotiations that we, working on development-themed films, have to make to tell people's stories: How to enable their voices to be heard without biases creeping in, and how to work in a non-hierarchical manner. I realised that participatory or collaborative works were better in this regard, since these had less inherent biases than traditional forms of storytelling.

Deciding to make a collaborative film with and about domestic workers was easier said than done. The fact that I belonged to the same class as their employers, was friends with their employers and was also a 'Punjabi', an ethnic group considered most exploitative, initially made it hard for me to win their confidence. It is here that Pratima's initial offer to introduce me to other women like her, and to families back home, proved invaluable. Persistence in wanting to hear their stories, respecting their silences and not pressing them to divulge what was painful, coupled with a helpful introduction by Pratima, gradually allowed many of them to shed their mistrust and reticence and begin speaking to me. This trust-building process alone took over a year.

Collaborative storytelling

Over 120 women ended up sharing their narratives with me during research, talking on issues that they personally felt needed highlighting. The consensus was that the focus would be solely on full-time live-in migrant female domestic workers, for they face a unique set of problems as compared to part-time domestic workers. I gave my cell-phone number to them and they would take the initiative to call me.

Oftentimes, they would meet me, singly or in groups, in spaces that they considered safe and where they could talk unmonitored, outside churches on Sunday mornings or at parks where they took their employer's children to play in the evenings. Very rarely did I meet them at their employers' homes. Being a woman filmmaker helped, as this cut down on the possibility that they could be questioned about meeting me in a park or other public space, unlike if I were a man. This also enabled them to talk openly about intimate subjects such as loneliness as a female, love and the desire to marry, as well as details of sexual abuse, abortions and heartbreaks in relationships with men in the city.

There was also a ripple effect of this research. Once a group of women felt I was on their side, they would typically introduce me to others or suggest that I speak to so-and-so about her unique experience. Shooting film in villages in Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, from where many of the women had migrated, was made far easier because they were able to call up their parents or contacts back home and request that they share their side of the story. In fact, the entire village of Taldih, in Orissa, ended up welcoming me, and it was the villagers who alerted me to the disturbing fact that a large number of young girls go missing and remain untraceable after migrating to the city.

Once the filming began, the question of what issues would be covered in the documentary tested the collaborative nature of our work. I must admit I found it hard as a filmmaker to fully understand that certain topics that I felt were important to highlight were vetoed by the domestic workers. For instance, the issue of sexual abuse at the workplace was one that the women did not want in the film at all, even though it was a reality for many. Their rationale was that they did not want their families to consider their workplace as dangerous; nor did they want to antagonise their employers, whom they considered to be vital allies in fighting for their rights. After all, the blame for any abuse was always placed on the women themselves, who were projected as 'loose' and 'immoral' while the employer usually got away scot-free with his reputation intact. In this, I knew we were leaving out an important aspect of their lives, but also realised that forcing the issue would be unfair to those who participated.

Their main anger was against placement-agency owners and recruiters, whom they considered to be their biggest exploiters. That the agents and recruiters were often their kin or belonged to the same caste, community or village made the betrayal worse. The women wanted the film to focus largely on their exploitation by these people, so that their employers would do a rethink before requesting that a placement agency provide them with a domestic worker.

Despite this, most women were uncomfortable speaking in front of the camera for fear of reprisals or harassment, either from their employers or the placement agencies. Apart from Pratima, the women who agreed to be in the documentary were mainly those who had broken free from their placement agencies; many of these had subsequently succeeded in negotiating informal work agreements with employers working in the development or social-justice sector, who generally appeared to be sympathetic towards their domestic workers.

During the making of the film, I found that my friendships with many of my colleagues became tense and fractured. They started seeing me as a 'betrayer', since I had so openly aligned myself with the female workers. Refusal to share with them what the domestic workers had disclosed in confidence to me made matters worse – whenever I interacted with my colleagues, neighbours and friends, it was difficult but necessary to put up a façade of not knowing the secrets told by their workers. Ironically, many also started to see me as one who would find them a 'suitable maid', and several could not understand how I could refuse to help them.

Against this backdrop, it was hard to find employers willing to be interviewed. They had no qualms about having their workers interviewed or being filmed in their homes in their absence. But the only employers who did agree to be filmed were my closest friends, as they trusted me as a filmmaker, cared enough about their workers and were frank in expressing their feelings and biases as employers.

For Pratima, meanwhile, it was not easy to hear villagers speak derisively about the migrating girls. She found it very hard to ignore the fact that nearly 90 percent of women who work as domestic workers are never able to get married, due to social stigma attached to their migration and the type of work they do. Though Pratima maintained her calm demeanour while recording interviews, I would find her brooding and silent and quite often in tears once we left. As we continued, she found it increasingly difficult to keep silent, not to retort or interrupt someone being interviewed. It was hard for her to reconcile the hypocrisy of parents and villagers who berated the working girls yet relied on them for money and gifts they so prized from the city.

A simple register

Domestic workers are not protected under the scope of India's labour laws. Since 1959, when a draft bill on domestic workers was first tabled in Parliament, nothing concrete has yet emerged to protect their rights. The Domestic Workers (Registration, social security and welfare) Act 2008 of which there are 11 versions, seeks to regulate and improve the condition of domestic workers, but remains at the draft stage. Though some states, such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka, have adopted a variety of approaches to protect the rights of domestic workers, implementing the minimal protections accorded by law is difficult, given that the work is conducted in the private sphere of a household. There is a singular lack of will on part of communities and governments at the national and state level to address the specific concerns and problems of migrating women and live-in domestic workers.

One simple and inexpensive way of informing and empowering women migrants could be to offer posters or billboards, written in local languages and containing helpline numbers that can be accessed in the city, located prominently at village centres, bus or railway stations. As has been done in some villages in Simdega district of Jharkhand, village councils could also maintain a register with details of migration, including names of recruiters and place and contact number of employers. These can become a valuable resource in case a girl goes missing.

Meanwhile, I still think of a 12-year-old girl I met just before she was going to leave her village for the city – without informing her parents. She was tired of constant hunger, poverty and deprivation, and sought a better life for herself and her family. I still remember what Pratima said as the young girl waved goodbye and flagged a passing vehicle: 'Preventing girls as young as that from migrating will simply not work, nor will doling out some cash to help her family. Till poverty, landlessness and unemployment that are the root causes of her migration and of mine are not addressed, girls like us will continue to be exploited and abused in the city.'

Tapestry offers articles that come up in the course of the work done by Himal's sister organisations. This piece comes from Film Southasia.

~ Reena Kukreja is an independent documentary filmmaker and adjunct faculty in the Departments of Gender Studies and Film & Media at Queen's University, Canada.

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