Religious nuns are not just narrowed down to the field of teaching in schools or being a nurse in hospitals, but selflessly dedicate themselves to fight for the rights and dignities of the vulnerable communities of society. Sister Sophia M. Arockia Mary is one such missionary-warrior who single-heartedly commits to be a voice to a large section of domestic workers from vulnerable communities (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe in the tribal belt of Sundargarh district, Rourkela, Odisha.

Over the WhatsApp conversation, the nun told Matters India that she is the general secretary of the union (GHAROI SHRAMIK SANGH), Province’ coordinator for the ministries with the domestic workers and migrants, and a student of law in Rourkela College, Odisha. On the day when she spoke with the writer, it was not complete to know her whole story. She responded to the writer’s queries about her mission over an mail after almost two months as she was completely taken up by her work.

The unification of domestic workers in unions is fraught with many difficulties Arockia Mary, the Missionary Sisters of the Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) explains: The SSpS sisters started to work in the slums of Rourkela since 1982. “Province decided to work among the domestic workers after they attended the VIVAT international workshop on constitutional rights of Dalit Christians and rights of migrants with special focus on domestic workers held in the year 2013 at St. Arnold Seva Sadan, Indore–India,” she said.

The nun and her staff started to unite domestic workers in the slums of Rourkela in 2014. “I went house to house meeting domestic women and their families,” she added. Arockia Mary was the first one who went to meet them and listened to their miseries, sorrows, and problems and considered them equal to workers of other sectors.

The nun said, “The workers felt hopeful.” She added, “I told them that being together under a union umbrella will empower you with collective bargaining power, through which you can negotiate with the government for a retirement pension, Domestic Workers Welfare Board, and implementation of minimum wages.” After a period of regular contact with them, she conducted a survey in 2015 with a system where the details of the socio-economic situation of the domestic worker as well as her family were collected.

“Deprivation of just wages, welfare measures, in-human working conditions and abuse of all kinds are major issues that the domestic workers faced in the industrial township of Rourkela,” Arockia Mary said. “We are victims of suspicion. If anything is missing in the house, we are the first to be accused. They are the people with money. We are their servants. They do not trust us even if we have worked for them for years together,” some domestic workers revealed to the nun.

“But even though we know that they do not trust us, we continue working in their homes, accepting the suspicion on us as if it were a common thing to occur in such situations,” revealed Pramila Dung Dung during the survey. The stigma linked to domestic work is heightened by the caste system; tasks such as cleaning and sweeping are associated with the people belonging to the “so-called” low castes.

“For us, it is the issue of survival; so, we try our best to adapt to the situation coping with humility,” said Sushila Mudnari, a Dalit domestic working woman. The survey findings convinced the nun to unite the domestic workers urgently in unions and empower them to live with dignity and respect. The nun said, “I helped the workers to get ready with all the papers required for the registration with the government.”

She continued, “It was a long and exhausting process to get the domestic workers to register into trade unions. The government officials ignored me, did not listen to me. Day and night (until late) I sat in the labor office requesting them to do their job.” The application for registration lay in the table untouched. Every single day was postponed to another day, she recalled. She added, “I went behind each officer as the application passed from one table to the other.

Seeing my struggle, my sisters in the convent, domestic workers, laborers, lay animators, like-minded Government, and Non-Government Organizations encouraged and supported.” Finally, on March 22, 2016, the union named “GHAROI SHRAMIK SANGH” was registered under the Indian Trade Unions Registration Act, 1926. Gharoi Shramik Sangh received a certificate from the Deputy Labour Office, Rourkela.

There were 117 domestic workers at the time of registration to a union. The Fruits of Labor. Stories of positive impact on the domestic workers spread around the area. Shortly the construction workers, marriage party workers, self-employed workers, and other unorganized workers joined in the union. By 2017, there were 677 members in Gharoi Sharamik Sangh union. “The workers in the Union feel happy that a lot of work is done through union especially making of labor cards, unorganized workers’ cards and availing its benefits for the whole family.”

Mrs. Gauri Rahul, a member says, “Now I am good at delivering public speeches. I became free and I am not scared of anyone anymore.” “I also learned that being all alone will not secure anything. It is only by being in a group that we can achieve everything. We can fight for our rights only through a Union,” she added.

The union established a good contact with the Labour Officers. They have become a great support in ensuring the dues and facilities in time. “I was a workaholic. I was not aware of the hours of work and minimum wage of the state. I received a labor card now. I received a bicycle, safety working tools, and annual financial help towards the education of my children. I take holidays to be with my family for relaxation,” said Tintus Lakra, a construction worker.

Missionary Sisters of the Holy Spirit is the first woman organization in Odisha to register a union for the workers in the area. “The local government is in favor of supporting the union,” said Arockia Mary, the general secretary of the union. Kumar Jamrick Toppo, the parish priest of Rourkela said, “The registration of domestic workers in union facilitated numerous benefits to the socially deprived, marginalized Dalit and tribal families.” “It is because of the untiring work of the members of the Sisters of the Servants of the Holy Spirit and especially of Arokia Mary, the program coordinator for Domestic Workers Union,” he added.

In India, domestic work is a vast area of employment, often considered as an unskilled and unorganized sector by the government and others. They play a great role in exhibiting wealth and comfortable living of the upper-middle-class families when they cater to their every need. The estimated number of domestic workers in India is 90 million. This is probably an underestimate because there has been no scientific study to document such workers in the country.

When asked how successful she is in her mission, the nun responded, “I feel happy. I was unable to convince people, but over some time I can do so. “I can convince people. I am not scared of meeting all kinds of people and talking to them freely.” “I want to continue to work for the empowerment of Dalit and tribal women. The entire experience carried so much of love and affection in me for vulnerable communities,” Sister Arokia Mary concluded.


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