Women Domestic Workers in Delhi: issues of choice, spatial mobility and housing

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On Wednesday 15 October, Sonal Sharma will give a lecture at the EUI on women domestic workers in Dehli.

In India, paid domestic work has expanded exponentially in India over last few decades. The growth in the sector is attributed to several factors such as the agrarian crisis, rural- urban migration, and the loss of industrial jobs.   Rising urbanization alongside the expansion of the urban middle class in India has fueled the demand for paid domestic work. In fact, the prevalence of domestic help is understood to be so intrinsic to the Indian middle class life that some scholars identify it as a defining feature of this class.

It has been argued that with the growth in the size of the middle class in India, the number of domestic workers has also increased. The sector has not just grown in size, but has changed in composition as well. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) figures from late 1970s onward have captured the increasing participation of women in domestic work (Neetha 2004).  As per the statistics of the NSSO (2004-05), there are 4.75 million domestic workers in India, out of which 3 million are “women in urban areas”[1].  It has been claimed that these figures are a gross under-representation of the magnitude of paid domestic work in the country. Increasing participation of women in the sector is attributed to feminization of urban poverty and the prevalence of the part-time arrangement in the sector that allows poor urban women to do paid work in others’ homes while also take care of their own homes (Neetha, 2008).

This article is based on an ongoing ethnographically-oriented study and draws on the narratives of women domestic workers in Delhi about their notions of mobility and their perceptions of spaces in their daily life in the city of Delhi.  It seeks to examine the experiences of women domestic workers as women and as urban poor in relation to the urban space in post millennial Delhi.  Looking at the geography of the city through the experience of women domestic enables us to see Delhi from its margins.,

Choosing to do paid (domestic) work?

Lalti (45) had to start working because her husband fell sick and could not work to support the family. At one point, she started working in a factory, but her husband, who was then bedridden, asked her to continue doing domestic work as it was near their home and allowed her to look after their children. In her initial days of part-time domestic work, Lalti would go to her first workplace as early as 6 am and be back home by 7 am. From 7 am to 8 am, she would do her household work, including sending her children to school, and after finishing all this, she would go back to work in other homes. Around 10 am, she would come home and do household work again. Lalti used to go for five shifts like this in a day.  Like Lalti’s, other testimonies also confirm that women take up part-time work because of its flexibility, facilitated by the geographic proximity of the workplace.  Bano (60), who moved to Delhi from Assam after her husband’s death, shares that there was nobody to look after her children when she started working. She would lock them inside the house and go to work in the nearby neighborhood. In the afternoon, she would come back to feed her children before she went back to do the second shift.  Financial distress remains a major cause for workers to take up domestic work. Lalti and many other workers look at their work as a result of helplessness. Bhagwati (60), who started working as a maid when her husband fell really sick, articulated it as, ‘apne ghar se bahar jaana kise acchha lagta hai?’(Who likes to go out of her home?) Bhagwati also has to hide her work from the extended family because she feared they would look down on her for working in others’ home. Stories of taking up domestic work by women in Delhi also unpack their struggle with the stigmatized nature of this. The stigma which makes all the tasks in domestic work in general and certain ‘polluting’ tasks in particular can be traced in the history of caste based occupations. While on hand, the ‘flexible’ nature of domestic work allowed these women to undertake paid work, on the other, the stigmatized nature of the work really impacted their sense of self-worth and respect in the wider society.

The geographic proximity of their workplaces allowed women workers to do both paid and unpaid work; they constantly struggled to balance both, by moving between home and their workplace, in-between shifts, which was physically and psychologically extremely strenuous.  The need to find something in geographic proximity is explained not just by women’s responsibility for their own household chores but also their lack of familiarity with the city spaces at large. Feminist geographers emphasizing over the phenomenological aspect of space, have argued that lack of familiarity with the non-familial spaces does not only confine women to their own homes, but it also makes them susceptible to the experience of torture and fear when they find the space unfamiliar. Many women in the study could not take up any other work as often these other opportunities required these women to travel and women were not familiar with the larger geography of the city that got reflected in their unawareness about the public transport and names of places. In this regard, Kala’s (35) experience is worth mentioning.  She migrated from the state of Tamil Nadu, with her brother, before she got married in Delhi, and currently lives in a resettlement colony[2] in south east of Delhi. Kala started working recently, after several years of marriage, as her husband started spending all his money on alcohol and Kala was not able to feed her two children as there was no money.  Kala talked about her experience of commuting from her home to work at great length. Kala lives three kilometers away from the neighbourhood where she works. Soon after she started working as a maid, she tells me about her experience of getting lost in following words:

“Once I lost my way [while returning from work]…[and] started crying in panic. I used to come to work through one way and used to go back from the same route…[that day] I kept walking around the area in an effort to find my way back. Then I happened to see a man, who was also from Trilokpuri [the place where she lives]. He asked me what was happening as I had already passed through that area thrice. He said he was going home to have lunch. I told him that I was also on my way back home after work. Then he dropped me home on his bicycle. After reaching home, I told him that I had lost my way and urged him not to share it with anybody.”

Kala is just one of the women who were familiar only with the locality they were living in and for whom to be able to able to commute to the other parts of the city required them to be accompanied by the male members of the family. Experiences like that of Kala highlight the need to engage with the spatial constraints in their complexities by interrogating female subjectivity.

Negotiating the Constraints and Vulnerabilities of the City Space

Geographic proximity is preferable to everybody who works in general, but that does not mean it is also achievable, i.e. very often people have to live far from their place of work for a variety of reasons. In Delhi also, not all women workers live in ‘geographic proximity’ and commute by public transport. Some of these workers are formerly dwellers of the poor informal settlements in Delhi which suffered most from the beautification drive in the wake of commonwealth games held in 2010. Many informal settlements that existed at the heart of the city, close to the middle class and even rich neighbourhoods were demolished and many people who were evicted in the process were resettled on the fringes of the city. For women the neighbourhoods which were in the geographic proximity before the eviction are not so anymore. And, they spend a quite a substantial amount of time and money traveling (Menon-Send and Bhan, 2008). There is a peculiar gender dimension to these changes which the narratives of the domestic workers bring out very strongly.

Very often, domestic workers cannot use the same toilet as their employers do. Hence, very often there are separate or no toilets that are accessible to them. Before resettlement, such inaccessibility of toilet was negotiated by most of the workers by going back to their own home when they needed to use the toilet. The new and significantly enhanced distance does not leave the possibility for these women workers to negotiate the lack of accessibility. There are a new set of strategies that are deployed: not drinking “too much water” is one of them. In India, cities seem to be hostile to women, especially in regards to availability and accessibility of public toilets, and thus not drinking “too much water” is a commonly observed strategy. However, working class women suffer most from the inadequacy of toilets in city spaces (Phadke et al. 2011). The issue of toilet is important as it exposes one of the ways in which domestic workers are vulnerable to exclusionary and degrading treatment and the experience of exclusion is exacerbated in the light of lack of access to public toilets in the city at large.

A separate toilet  for maids in a housing society in Delhi (Photo: Author)

A separate toilet for maids in a housing society in Delhi (Photo: Author)

Existing scholarship on women’s work and geography shows that distance between home and work is subject to negotiation by women. In Delhi, women domestic workers negotiate the challenges posed by the city geography in a variety of ways. In case of the workers I interviewed, long distances involve spending a significant proportion of their income on travel expenses. Long distances also mean spending long hours traveling on public transport and getting back home after sunset which many women associate with the susceptibility of gender based violence. Often, workers moved in ‘servant quarter’ provided by employers to rid themselves off the aforementioned vulnerabilities. With the scarcity of space in India’s cities, having live-in workers has become rare but has not disappeared altogether. In India, many government colonies have servant quarters attached to high-level bureaucrats’ residences, of which there are many in Delhi. However, this arrangement is confined not just to government colonies; many upper-class private colonies have similar arrangement.

Maria, a migrant from Jharkhand, is one of several workers I interviewed who were living in servant quarters.  She has been working for her present employer for seven years, initially as a full-time, live-out worker. She used to commute a distance of eight kilometers from Okhla, her place of residence, to Defense Colony, where her employer lives.  She justified her choice of moving into the servant quarters saying that she used to go back home around eight, travelling by bus in an unsafe area. Also, given her daughter was growing up and Maria was concerned about her safety in that area.  So, she just accepted the facility of the servant quarter when her employer made the offer. However, Maria also acknowledges that since she has moved in with the employer, who lives in a gated colony, her ability to bargain for better wages has gone down as every time she asks for a hike her employer turns down the request: “…[Every time I ask for a raise] madam says ‘I have given you accommodation in such a good area. That quarter itself is worth a lot of money’ ”. Similarly, Mala, a mother of four adolescent daughters, attributes her decision to live in a gated colony to the perceived safety such colonies have in opposition all other kinds of residential areas. She earlier used to live in Mehrauli, an urban village, but she left that area because she did not find that place safe for herself and her daughters. Mala finds the current work arrangement exploitative and she is susceptible to eviction without any notice. However, she justifies the choice in the light of the fact that it is very expensive to find a place to live in general and a safe place to live with young daughters in particular. Though affordability remains a key reason why workers want to live in “free” accommodation provided by an employer but the choice is significantly shaped by the women workers’ notions of safety in different types of neighbourhoods.

Workers who decide to move in with their employer share mixed feelings, acutely aware of the trade-off between the ‘freedom’ of living independently and the ‘safety’ and ‘good environment’ of middle class neighborhoods.   Living with an employer gives him or her excessive control, as Anne Waldrop’s (2004) ethnography of Golf Link area shows wherein the some house owners of the neighbourhood feel entitled to command working class people in the area, whether they are employed by them or not,  to work for them. One worker explained me, “It is better to work as a live-out worker, because in this arrangement we come back home. If tomorrow I feel like bunking the work, I can do that. Those who work as live-in servants, have no option but to work.” While moving in with an employer is certainly an act of ‘maneuvering’ the city—overcoming the distance of commute and the corresponding constraints—such maneuvering has its price: workers are more dependent on and vulnerable to employers.

Concluding Thoughts

The narratives of women domestic workers give us a glimpse of social relations and interactions across various places in Delhi, which, when interwoven, give an account of the city as a social space. Through this approach the vulnerabilities and power inequalities can be taken beyond individual experiences and examined in the light of various structural issues in the context of extreme inequalities that are not just economic but also socio-cultural and civic.  The intent is not to ‘fetishize’ space, but rather to look at its role in shaping the urban life — as a resource, a constraint, a site of contestation and negotiation — from the gaze of the marginalized. It enables us to see the wider set of relations stretched over the city space that produce domestic work relations. By looking at individual experiences of domestic work together with wider entitlement issues, we can dislocate the power that produces vulnerability for domestic workers from the immediate place of work and locates it at multiple sites in the city.


SonalSonal Sharma is currently a Research Associate with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Trained in economics and development studies, he is interested in informality, gender, work and human geography in cities, on which he has published a number of opinion pieces and presented at international conferences. Before joining CPR, he was involved in researching migration and industrial work in Delhi. He has a Master’s degree in Development Studies from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, New Delhi.




Menon-Sen, K. and  Bhan, G. (2008). Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi. New Delhi: Yoda Press.

Neetha, N. (2004). Making of Female Breadwinner: Migration and Social Networking of Women Domestics in Delhi. Economic and Political Weekly, 1681-1688.

Neetha, N. (2008). Regulating Domestic Work. Economic & Political Weekly,


Phadke, S. ;  Khan, S.  and Ranade, S. (2011). Why loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets. New  Delhi: Penguin Group.

Waldrop, A. (2000). Gating and Class Relations: the case of a New Delhi “colony”, City and Society 16(2), 93–116.



[1] Minister of State of Labour and Employment in a response  to question number 649 on  09.12.2013,  asked in Lok Sabha( the lower house of Indian parliament)

[2] A resettlement colony is a colony where the people evicted from informal and “illegal” poor settlements are resettled by the government. In Delhi, there are several resettlement colonies.