CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For as long as she can remember, R Meenakshi has been waking up at dawn to wash dishes, sweep floors and scrub clothes, earning 2,000 rupees ($30) a month.
"I am 65 and it might be too late, but I want more respect for the work I have done all my life," Meenakshi told a public hearing organised by two labour rights groups in the southern Indian city of Chennai on Thursday.
"I worked very hard to bring up three children. I'm only asking for better pay and a hot cup of coffee when I get to work. Is that too much?" she said to cheers from other domestic workers, who had taken the day off to join the meeting.
The event was part of a drive to push for faster implementation of a bill to provide domestic workers with a minimum monthly salary of 9,000 rupees and benefits including social security cover and mandatory time off.
There are an estimated 50 million domestic workers in India, most of them women, who are regularly exploited in the absence of any legal protection such as the National Policy for Domestic Workers, which is awaiting cabinet approval, activists say.
Many housemaids are forced to work up to 18 hours a day and face dire living conditions, sexual abuse, physical violence and low wages or non-payment, they say.
"Today their salary depends on their bargaining power," said Josephine Valaramathi of the National Domestic Workers Movement, which organised the meeting with the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Federation.
Together, the groups have 200,000 members across the country.
"With the draft bill for domestic workers yet to be cleared by the government, all these workers have no protection under existing laws," Valaramathi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said the workers were now demanding a minimum wage of 75 rupees per hour, paid annual leave and days off as well as proper food and accommodation.
"I start work at nine in the morning and there is no respite until seven in the evening," said Kokila, who declined to give her full name.
"Even their pet dog is treated better than I am. We put up with a lot of it because we have no choice. If we did, we would quit."
The women who spoke included those who were refused leave for medical checks during pregnancy and many who were asked to leave without any notice.
"Where these women work is not a typical work place; it is someone's home," said U Vasuki of the All India Democratic Women's Association.
"A national policy, social awareness and some level of social security is required to ensure their basic rights are protected."
($ 1 = 66.8750 rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen and Timothy Large.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)