By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Dec 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Muthukani Murugesan faked illness to take a day off work on Wednesday and joined hundreds of fellow maids protesting in southern India for a living wage and better benefits.
Cheering loudly as fellow housemaids narrated experiences of abuse, low wages and ridicule at a convention organised by labour rights groups, 47-year-old Murugesan said her wages had increased by just 3,000 Indian rupees ($47) in the last decade.
"It's almost laughable," said Murugesan, who told her employer that she was vomiting so she could attend the meeting in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
"They don't like me taking days off. But the bigger problem is that most of us here have debts to pay off. These are loans we were forced to take - for weddings and schooling - because we don't earn enough."
India's rapid urbanisation and the growing numbers of women who go out to work have spurred demand for domestic workers. But work conditions and rewards remain patchy at best, renewing demands for weekly days off, maternity benefits and a pension, as well as wages that keep pace with inflation.
"Domestic work is not counted as real work in our social fabric," said Deepa Ebenezer, a research scholar working on the changing nature of domestic work at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
"It is expected of women and often described as work done for the love of the home. And so the work has no value and this directly impacts the wages of maids."
There are an estimated 50 million domestic workers in India, most of them women, who are regularly exploited in the absence of any legal protection such as the National Policy for Domestic Workers, which is awaiting cabinet approval, activists say.
Low wages, with annual increments as low as 100 Indian rupees ($2), compel women to take loans and the repayment cycle makes it impossible for them to quit exploitative jobs, campaigners say.
"Most of our members are ageing quickly but continue to work because of debts," said Josephine Valaramathi of the National Domestic Workers Movement.
"We are demanding an increase in pension, which is a measly 1,000 rupees today. Women are paying off loans of up to 500,000 rupees($7,760)."
The Indian government has recently drafted a policy to give domestic workers the right to register themselves as employees, guarantees a minimum wage, protection from abuse, and access to health insurance, maternity benefits and pension, as well as an opportunity to add skills.
There is no timeframe for when the proposed policy will come into effect.
($1 = 64.4325 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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