Unionising India’s domestic workers

A union bring many benefits for women like Guruvammal, far left

Every day, Senhol Mary leaves her family before dawn and walks for nearly an hour through the broken streets of the Indian city of Madurai to reach the house of the family for whom she works. She spends over half the day cleaning, doing laundry, shopping and cooking. Until recently she earned as little as 50 rupees ($1) per day for her work.

Three years ago the Tamil Nadu Labour Union (TNLU), with funding from New Zealand development charity, UnionAID, started organising Senhol Mary and other domestic workers.

Within a year, over 110 women had formed a union, elected leaders, and learned about their labour rights. The union set pay rates for different tasks such as laundry and, with the help of the TNLU, bargained with the families employing them to set new rates. As a result, pay has tripled for most union members, including Senhol Mary.

The women now earn enough to contribute to a union savings scheme, and perhaps most importantly, they also have a new sense of pride and confidence in themselves.

“After joining the union I am proud to say I can protect my rights and get the rights I deserve,” says Guruvammal, one of the union leaders.

“I feel protected in the hours I work and that I’m no longer being exploited. Now I can afford for my children to continue to study.”

UnionAID needs your support so it can continue the excellent work it does supporting projects like this in the Asia Pacific region.

Go to www.unionaid.org.nz/donate/ to become a monthly Kiwi Solidarity donor.

Migrant builders focus of research

E tū has launched a research project on the experience of migrant construction workers thanks to funding from the Industrial Relations Foundation.

The research includes a series of focus groups around the country with the first held in Christchurch on 2 December. Participants will be asked what they need from the union to meet the needs of the modern construction industry.

It’s expected that another 58,000 workers will be needed to implement the Government’s plans for huge investments in infrastructure and housing. The homegrown workforce is one source but the industry will need migrant workers as well and your union’s goal is to organise all workers and ensure we meet their needs.

The research project is welcome news for migrants like Heinrick Bratton, who says training is needed to help win the respect of industry employers.

“There is a need for migrant workers like me, who are still on a work visa, to access industry training to upskill and gain New Zealand qualifications. That will make me more confident in doing my job. It will also mean the boss cannot constantly intimidate me by saying I do not have the proper skills because I am a migrant worker, and I do not know the New Zealand standard.

“I believe the research will be an effective tool to unravel so many ideas, experiences and aspirations from us to be heard,” he says.

If you are a construction worker and would like to take part in this project, or you have friends who are migrant workers in the industry (you don’t need to be a member to be in a focus group) you can email: constructionresearch@etu.nz or phone 0800 186 466 and ask for Mat Danaher.