ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Between ‘Baksheesh’ and ‘Bonus’

Precarity, Class, and Collective Action among Domestic Workers in Bengaluru

How is class experienced by domestic workers when they come together for collective action? Using ethnographic data, this paper argues that the collective action efforts by some unions of domestic workers in Bengaluru to demand “bonus” reveals the struggles over class that they engage in, struggles that make them conscious of their in-between class status as self-employed workers in a precarious informal economy. The collective action of demanding bonus in Bengaluru entails a cultural–political struggle away from a gift economy relationship and towards a more commodified economy under conditions of precarity in the informal economy.

Research for this paper was supported by the Azim Premji Foundation research grant.

News stories about the abuse of domestic workers (henceforth DWs) by their employers potentially generate debate about how class distinctions operate in Indian society (EPW Engage 2017). However, public discourse frequently constructs the DWs as passive, reducing them to mute victims who do not articulate their own desires, demands, and dispositions, in short, as inscrutable subalterns. This paper approaches the DWs subjectively through their actions as meaning-making human subjects whose identities (and behaviour) are shaped by objective sets of relations within which they act and confront their employers. The DWs construct meanings about their lived experiences in the process of political struggles (Burawoy 1989), including struggles over how to classify symbolic goods (Bourdieu 1989) such as gifts and bonuses. Their identities are visible in the taking up of positions as subjects, which is the work of culture (Hall 1997). Rather than an abstract category of analysis, class then becomes a culturally experienced reality that shapes collective action. It comes alive as symbolic power and strategies at moments when the DWs produce their services and subjectivities within work relations. Attending to the struggles of the DWs to collectivise allows us glimpses into how they make their histories only within given conditions of existence.

One moment in the making of such histories occurred a few months ago in Bengaluru. Rita, an organiser in a DW union started her area-level meeting by asking a question to the approximately 30 DWs: In two months a festival will come, what is that? When the DWs chorused Deepavali, Rita took the lead and solemnly exhorted the workers saying This is one chance to demand a bonus. Few employers will give, and few will not. So, our Executive Committee members have suggested that we print the posters with the demands of bonus and weekly off. And paste them near the apartments. (field note entry, 1 September 2017)

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Published On : 14th Nov, 2018

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