Days after around 200 domestic workers in a gated community in north Mumbai went on strike to protest their employers’ attempt to standardise their wages below average rates, residents of the complex have begun to lay them off without notice.

The strike began on May 21, after some residents at the Raheja Vistas housing complex in Chandivali put up a circular on their noticeboard declaring the rates they would pay to domestic workers.

“I lost my job in four houses since yesterday,” said Nekma Sheikh, 43, a domestic worker who participated in the three-day strike. “The madams in Vistas said they don’t want people who attended the protest to work in their houses and they told me not to come for work from June 1.”

Sheikh collectively earned Rs 15,000 each month in these houses, and is now left with work only worth Rs 5,000 per month in other buildings. She claimed that most people who worked in the building and attended the protest had lost many of their jobs there.

“I worked with one of these families for 10 to 12 years, moving with them from another building to this one,” Sheikh said. “I saw their children grow up. And now, they are removing me as if I am just an insect.”

The contentious notice

Raheja Vistas is an 11-tower building complex, parts of which are still under construction in the larger gated community of Raheja Vihar. It is the only building complex to still be under the management of the builders, the KV Raheja group, and so does not yet have a housing society.

The post-dated circular on the notice board of all 11 buildings in the society says that more than 100 members decided to standardise the rates amongst themselves “due to rate-disparity within Vistas, for same job under similar situation.”

The circular added that members are free not to follow the suggested rates and that those who are paying more than this can consider adjusting downwards by denying workers their annual increment. It ends with the exhortation, “Unity is Power”.

Image credit: Mridula Chari

The day after the circular was posted, domestic workers took umbrage and decided to go on strike, led by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. For three days from May 21, around 200 protestors refused to go to work and prevented others in the larger Raheja Vihar complex from going to work as well. Now, many of these workers have been asked not to return to work from the beginning of June.

Anjani Agarwal, a resident of Raheja Vistas and a business owner defended the rate card.

“You must understand that I am a motivated person and will take the sides of my own people,” Agarwal said. “In Raheja Vistas, we are paying Rs 1,000 per month (for one hour of work every day) to domestic workers. I run a small-scale company and can say that the price we are paying them is more than what we are paying to our workers.”

The problem, Agarwal said, arose because the domestic workers had, allegedly in conjunction with the local corporator, demanded wages of Rs 1,500 per hour per month. Some people in the building were indeed paying less than these standard wages and others more, Agarwal added, and this disparity had further fuelled perceptions on both sides.

Already discussed in Delhi

This is not the first time residents of a housing complex have decided unilaterally to fix wages. In April, residents of Purvanchal Silver City, a housing society in Delhi NCR, circulated an email chain amongst themselves demanding a uniform rate card for informal workers be introduced in the society.

“These Maids have understood the vulnerability and use our Weak point , they have literally bought us,” a resident called Preeti wrote. Preeti added later in her letter that a temporary domestic worker at her house had told her about complaining to the Resident Welfare Association after another of her employers defaulted on her wages for around ten days.

“The Financially weaker Lots Maids etc why must we take their Curses or How dare they go up to the RWA Office to complain about Us , dont we all have some SELF RESPECT !!!” Preeti exclaimed.

(Read the full letter here.)

It is unclear from the email exchange whether a rate card eventually materialised from this discussion, although it seems unlikely from the tone that any such card would involve the inputs of the domestic workers.

First time in Mumbai

In Mumbai, this might be the first such instance of residents trying to do this.

“In my knowledge, this is the first time we have heard of employers making a rate card for domestic workers,” said Chitra Gosavi, member of the National Domestic Workers Movement, a non-governmental organisation for domestic workers’ rights headquartered in Mumbai. “But since it is the workers who are at a disadvantage, they should be the ones demanding rates, not the employers.”

The movement made a standardised rate card based on living costs in March 2015 to circulate among its members in different cities. It was, they claim, the first such rate card to be circulated in Mumbai. These prices were due to be revised in April 2017, but meetings are still on to decide new wages.

The Raheja Vistas rate card does not meet even the 2015 standards of the movement’s list of wages.

“They don’t understand,” said a domestic worker, who asked not to be named as she still has one of her three jobs in Raheja Vistas. “These people give birth once in ten years. We have children every year. Ration and water is expensive, some people have to take autos to get to work. Even if they can’t give Rs 1,500 per hour, they can afford Rs 1,200 at least.”

The workers who had retained their jobs, she added, were those who could not leave because they had taken loans from their employers. These workers were in no position to even negotiate a higher salary, let alone leave, or ask for weekly days off, she said.

“In the garb of process and structure, there are naked class differences at play,” said a resident of Raheja Vihar who asked not to be named. “If you’re doing all this formalisation, then give them other benefits like maternity leave, Provident Fund, weekend leaves and all of that. I honestly think this is silly on the part of the Vistas people. In their private sector lives, they want choice and negotiating power, but not at home.”

Added Sheikh, “Ye log sochte hai ki hum unke gulaam hai. Inki gulaami karo, kya matlab?” These people think we are their slaves. What is the meaning in acting as slaves to them?