Organizing for Empowerment: Exploring the Impact of Unionization on Domestic Workers in India
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This article seeks to illuminate the impact of unionization on a group of domestic workers in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai. We argue that, as a result of being unionized, these domestic workers have been able to initiate a process of personal empowerment or “power within” which has, in turn, led to changes in how they perceive themselves and their place in the world. These changes which have led to an enhanced sense of self-worth and self-efficacy are related to changes that have occurred in the lives of the women at three levels: gaining formal recognition and social citizenship, experiencing changes in the cognitive domain and emotional habitus, and the development of collective solidarities. We demonstrate how these changes have unfolded in an iterative and mutually constitutive manner. We also argue that, while unionization and being part of collective movement has driven a process of personal empowerment for the domestic workers, this has not necessarily resulted in a willingness by these women to initiate and sustain collective acts of social action around self-defined concerns and priorities. As in many other parts of the world, domestic work in India is performed under precarious and informal working conditions outside the realm of labor regulation and social protection. Located at the confluence of the structural hierarchies of gender, caste, and class, paid domestic work is one the most stigmatized and lowest paid occupations in India (Gothoskar 2013; Neetha 2009). The development literature has shown that with the turn to neoliberal reforms in most parts of the world from the late 1980s onwards, there has been a concomitant increase in the global informal sector due to the policies of market liberalization (Agarwala 2013; Chun and Agarwala 2016). Similar continuities can be seen in India where since the launch of neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, informality has expanded and reproduced, contributing to the further immiseration and precarity of informal workers (Kerswell and Pratap 2016; Hensman 2011; Breman 2013). Domestic workers are difficult to organize and mobilize due to the structural barriers inherent in domestic service. They are often involved in casual, fragmented, and part-time activities which are conducted in physically dispersed and isolated private homes (Kabeer et al. 2013 b; Neetha and Palriwala 2011). Yet, in spite of these obvious challenges, domestic workers have been organizing and unionizing globally (see Blofield and Jokela 2018; Bonner 2010; Burja 2000; Boris and Nadasen 2008; Nadasen 2015). In this article, we analyze the impact that unionizing has had on a group of domestic workers in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai. Whereas scholars have shed some light on important aspects of precarious worker organizing in India (see Agarwala 2016; Hill 2010; Jhabvala 2013; Narayan and Chikarmane 2013; Gartenberg 2017), the literature in this field is still quite limited. This is even more so with respect to research on the mobilization of domestic workers in India, with a few honorable exceptions (see Devika et al. 2011; Eluri and Singh 2013; George 2013; Gothoskar 2005; Menon 2013; Moghe 2013). There has been scant focus on changes that occur at a micro-level in the lives of domestic workers—that is, in terms of workers’ consciousness, subjectivities, and relationships with one another—as a result of unionization and the impact that these changes might have on the ability of women domestic workers to enhance their own capabilities and agency. In order to do precisely this, we turn, in this article, to conceptual resources from development studies, feminist theories on empowerment, and social movement studies to show how domestic workers within the context of unionization have been able to initiate a journey of transformation in their ability to experience an enhanced sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. We argue that the process of acquiring a greater sense of self-efficacy and personal empowerment is related to changes that have occurred in the lives of women post unionization at three levels: gaining formal recognition and social citizenship, experiencing changes in the cognitive and emotional domain, and the development of mutual solidarities. Yet, at the same time, we indicate that while unionization and being part of a collective movement has generated a process of individual or personal empowerment, this has not necessarily resulted in the development of collective action that is initiated and sustained by the domestic workers themselves.
CitationBarua P, Haukanes H. Organizing for Empowerment: Exploring the Impact of Unionization on Domestic Workers in India. Studies in comparative international development. 2020;55:27-47
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