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Dangerous Shelter
by Ambujam Anantharaman Bookmark and Share
Women's groups and labor organizations in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, have become very vocal in their fight for the cause of domestic workers. Recently, organizations like Pennurimai Iyakkam, along with the Tamil Nadu Domestic Worker's Movement, the Unorganized Worker's Federation and many others, demanded the arrest of K Raghupathi, founder and head of the House Maids Service and the South India Scheduled Tribes Welfare Association (HMS and SISTWA). Raghupathi has been accused of sexually and economically exploiting several women since the early 1990s. They had come to his shelter home for employment and refuge.

The women's groups and labor organizations, under the banner of Women's Struggle Committee (WSC, formed in 1996), have stated that they want justice for women who have been exploited or wronged by Raghupathi and his staff in the last decade and more.

Chennai has over 1.5 million domestic workers and more and more poor women seem to flock to the city, says R Geetha, trade unionist and founder member of Pennurimai Iyakkam (Women's Rights Organization), an NGO set up 25 years ago. While some women find jobs in construction sites, most, especially the young and the old, turn to domestic work for a living. Many are sexually abused and exploited and not paid their due wages. Geetha says their offenders are both employers and those running or working in recruitment agencies.

Apart from demanding the establishment of a body that will issue licenses to recruitment agencies for domestic workers, WSC is educating these women on their rights and helps them organize into groups.

The network's recent success has been encouraging domestic workers to join the Tamil Nadu Manual Worker's Union (TNMW). According to M S Anthony Samy, State President of TNMW, 500 domestic workers in Chennai have already enrolled with them. The union has also helped these women get compensation from their employers if they suffered injuries during work. In many cases, housemaids broke limbs while performing their chores. The union also provides legal aid to women.

R Leelavathi, State Secretary, Pennuriyamai Iyakkam, points out that a majority of domestic workers do not know that they are eligible for benefits under the Tamil Nadu government's Social Security Scheme for Manual Workers. If they become members of the scheme, by paying Rs 100 (1US$=Rs 44), they get money for their children's education and marriage.

Geetha says most women who come to work from the villages are abandoned women, and many have children to support.

Elaborating on Raghupathi's case, Geetha said the former married a narikuruva (which means gypsy in Tamil) woman in 1986 and expressed his desire to work with her tribal community. The then chief minister M G Ramachandran granted him land in Saidapet (in Chennai), where he started a school for narikuruva children and a shelter home for the narikurava women.
Soon after, says Geetha, Raghupathi started supplying women from other communities, especially dalits (who also came to the shelter) as domestic helps to people in different cities. Later, narikuruva women were also forced to work in homes.

When poor women came seeking shelter, he forced them to give up one child for adoption. These children would then be sold by Raghupathi to foreigners and Indians wanting to adopt. If the woman had more children, they would join the school run by Raghupathi, and when they grew up, they would work for him. While the first practice ended after the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) took up the case in 1994, the second continues.

Many of the women were also forced to have sex with Raghupathi to get a job or a place in the shelter. Those who refused were beaten into submission.

Besides, the women who were sent out to work in homes were rarely paid. The employers signed a cheque in Raghupathi's name, he would deposit it in his account. Every month, the women had to stand in a queue before him and beg for Rs 150- Rs 200. While the media reported some of the goings-on in the women's shelter, the authorities did not take any serious note of it.

It was the courageous efforts of Jayalakshmi, 57, a homemaker, that actually exposed Raghupathi and his colleagues. In April 1997, Jayalakshmi, while on her way to the UK, was handed a leaflet on destitute women at the Chennai airport. When Jayalakshmi came back to India, she read about the goings-on in this government-aided shelter run by Raghupathi.

Jayalakshmi decided to carry out a sting operation: she joined the organization as a volunteer. In two years, she collected enough evidence, ranging from cases of rape of penniless women to physical and verbal abuse of women who sought their wages.

When Raghupathi told Jayalakshmi in December 1999 that he was converting the housmaids' service into a trust, and wanted her to be the treasurer, she decided to get out. In 2000, along with her, 100 of the 500 inmates of the home left and went back to their native villages. Thirty-five others, with the help of Pennurimai Iyakkam, decided to seek justice: get back the money Raghupathi owed them, and book him for his crimes.

The women filed several complaints with Saidapet police station against Raghupathi in 2000. Raghupathi was arrested but later given bail. Today he continues to run the shelter. WSC members say that while over 18 women complained against him, the police registered only two FIRs (first information reports). Both these cases, charging Raghupathi of sexual assault, are now pending in court. The women's groups also say that as Raghupathi is politically influential, he has got massive protection. However, they say they will continue to agitate that he is booked for his crimes.

Meanwhile, Jayalakshmi, who in 2000 set up Annai Illam (Mother's House), a recruitment agency, is showing others how such agencies need to be run. Unlike Raghupathi's agency, workers here get their salary directly from the employers. The employers also pay Rs 750 as registration fee, which is used to meet overheads and take care of health problems of the women.  
More by :  Ambujam Anantharaman
Views: 2340
Article Comment Dear madam,
I've been searching for a live-in cook for the past couple of months but to no avail. I was browsing the web when I read about your Illam and the good work u do. I live my 80+ mother and my son. i go to work everyday and worry about leaving my mother alone.
I will be very grateful and you'll be immensely blessed if you can help me with a good, dependable, clean and who'll be able to cook.
Thanking you in advance.
Susan jacob.
Susan Jacob
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