This year, in the run up to International Women's Day, on March 8, 2016, AMRC is publishing a series of stories to highlight the struggles and voices of women workers from across Asia.
“I am now 67 years old and I have been working for the last 10 years as a domestic worker. Before that, I worked as tea plantation worker but I couldn’t manage with only that salary. I have 2 daughters and a son. My husband is a labourer. I experienced poverty throughout my childhood. My parents were tea estate workers and we are 6 in the family. I studied up to grade 5. When I was 16, I started to work in the estate. I married when I was 21 years old.
The estate management started to reduce our working days. The estate manager and other staff wanted us to work a few days in their homes. That is how I started to work as a domestic worker. I don’t have proper working hours. Until I go to bed, I work. I have no proper lunch or tea time as the employer or family may call me to attend to their requests. Getting leave is a big problem. I have to eat old food and there is no proper space to sleep or take a rest. I have had back pain and headache for the last 10 years and I am living with these pains. The toilet is outside and the bathing place is in the open garden, I have no privacy. I always try to discuss about my salary and leave with my employer before I start my work, but most of the time employers don’t pay what is agreed, always they pay lower.
I had 2 bad experiences of sexual abuse, where I tried to complain about this to the employer’s wife, but she never believed me. I was punished, not the husband. I am a residential worker; here too the payment is not fixed. The employer will fix the pay. Now I am paid Rs 12,000 a month. There is no job security for me. If I take leave, and come back, I am not sure that I will get my work again. I always think that the employers are having domestic workers to keep their family peaceful but they have to think that I also have a family, I need to see them. I don’t see my family every weekend. Once in a while, when I want to visit my family, the employer gets angry with me.”
(Documented and written by Red Flag Women’s Movement, Sri Lanka, 2015. Photo by Mankesh Chauhan. Photos are for illustrative purposes only. See more photos from our Women Workers of Asia Photo Contest 2015.)
It’s difficult to convince illiterate people, particularly womenfolk with almost no exposure to the world outside their homes to join a struggle for their economic rights, Shamaiza from Kasur district admits, but she is determined to make them aware of the need to do so.
Herself learning about workers’ rights only six months ago, when she visited the home of a student of her mother’s, Shamaiza has so far persuaded around 500 women workers to join a home-based workers’ union.
Coming from an impoverished family, she lost her father in her early childhood. In order to feed her family of five, her mother began sewing clothes as well as holding stitching classes for other girls and women. Thanks to a government voucher scheme, Shamaiza studied up to the 10th grade at a neighbourhood school for free. At home she would do embroidery work or un-knit used woollies to augment the family income and pay for the evening classes she was taking at an academy. For want of resources, she could not continue her studies even though her mother repeatedly asked her to, promising to produce the required funds somehow. Shamaiza yearns to earn a law degree, but seeing the poor financial situation of her family, she went against her mother’s wishes, and joined the teaching profession instead.
By joining the struggle for workers’ rights, she has found a new purpose in life. She is unwavering in her belief that hundreds of thousands of workers can only get their due rights and share in happiness by organizing themselves. “Persuading the illiterate women workers to jointly raise their voice for their rights is, no doubt, a tough and challenging job and there are thousands of such workers in my neighbourhood. But, where there is will there is way,” she asserts, vowing to bring all of them under one umbrella one day.
(Case study written by Labour Education Foundation Pakistan, 2015, Photo by Khalid Mahmood. Photos are for illustrative purposes only.)
Read next post for stories from an oil palm plantation worker in the Philippines, a garment worker in Bangladesh and a tea plucker in Sri Lanka.