Help me with a title here!
Back in the early 90s our college union was a bit of a joke. Many of my friends were a part of it so I didn’t laugh but the fact was our college union wasn’t really a union; they didn’t organise strikes or make strong demands. They didn’t set themselves up against any establishment. Half the students didn’t even know there was a union. Those that did didn’t really know what it was there for.
My college’s union was apolitical and took great pride in it – indeed, owed its existence to this fact. It existed in a cosy relationship with a nearly-maternal establishment and concerned itself with things like better food in the canteen and more parking space for students’ cars.
I was reminded of this when a friend recently said on Facebook that there ought to be a union for book reviewers. (I’m still not sure how serious she was.) Do I agree? You bet I do! Just as film technicians have associations that negotiate with producers on their behalf, I’m in favour of freelance writers organising themselves to ensure there’s some kind of accountability regarding payments and schedules.
As you may have guessed, I think unions are a pretty red hot idea.
Recently, though, I’ve been amused at the middle class’s enthusiastic adoption of tactics they’ve traditionally complained about. Remember the pilots’ strike last year for better wages? I wonder how many of those same airlines staff were annoyed about hartals by, say, the Narmada Bachao Andolan back in the day, and how it was creating traffic jams and making them late for work.
Or consider Resident Welfare Associations. I’m glad that they exist, and are recognised, and have the ability to negotiate with the government and the municipality about water, sewage, garbage disposal etc. But I wonder if they’d also associate themselves equally enthusiastically with the Domestic Workers’ Trade Unions in their cities.
What are the odds? They’re more likely to crib about how it’s so hard to get ‘affordable help’ and how they’re all – if they can read but even if they can’t – moving into supermarket jobs where they get paid a lot for doing very little.
And – taking a little detour here – don’t you just love the words we use to describe domestic workers? ‘Help’? A woman who gets up at some unearthly hour to cook her family’s meal and send her kids off to school so she can come in to work at 8 am, is ‘helping’ out? That other word, ‘maid’, to describe domestic workers is surely wistful: it turns them into discreet, genteel, almost feudal creatures, instead of the harassed, often resentful and certainly more vocal women they really are. The ugliest, most blunt appellation is, needless to say, ‘servant’ – it’s both politically incorrect and unapologetic about it.
Unorganised labourers, such as domestic workers, are some of the most exploited people today. It’s a well-known litany: hard physical work, no food or stale food, cut wages for one reason or another, abrupt dismissals, and loans leading into debts. One illness could destabilise the domestic worker’s life for many years.
The minimum wages for a domestic worker in Andhra Pradesh as of December 2007 is a laughable Rs. 12.50 and hour and Rs. 2,600 per month. We’re not even talking about medical benefits or paid leave here. Under the circumstances, I’m amazed at how unblushingly we complain about our domestic troubles.
Last year, the morning after Diwali, there were several empty shells lying around, the remains of those large crackers that splash across the sky in bursts of red and gold. Curious, I picked one up to see if there was a price tag. There was: it said MRP. Rs.1,200. Two of those more or less make one domestic worker’s monthly pay. That’s irony carrying a bludgeon.
So while I’m happy that the word ‘union’ is no longer entirely a dirty word for the middle class, I wish we could find a way to be equally supportive of those who might not have even considered unionising but will benefit enormously if they do. There’s another word people used to use that we could re-learn: it’s called ‘solidarity’.
Extra! From Infochange!
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)