‘Bed and Board’ in Lieu of salary: Women and Girl Children Domestics in Post Partition Calcutta (1951-1981)

Deepita Chakravarty, Ishita Chakravarty
JEL codes: 
Working Paper No. 84

Research on women’s work has attempted to analyse how the interplay of market and patriarchy leads women and men to perform different economic roles in society. This segregation on the basis of gender or the sex-typing of work plays an important role both from the demand and supply sides in determining the work profiles of women and girl children. The present study attempts to see how a particular labour market, i.e. domestic service, a traditionally male domain, became segregated both by gender and age in post partition West Bengal (WB) and mainly in its capital city Calcutta. We have argued that the downward trend in industrial job opportunities in post independence WB accompanied by large scale immigration of women, men and children from the bordering East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, led to an unprecedented increase in labourforce under conditions of stagnant investment. This in turn led to a decline in the wage rate. In such a situation poor refugee women in their frantic search for means of survival gradually drove out the males of the host population engaged in domestic service in urban WB by offering to work in return for a very low and often for no wage at all. Again, poor males from the neighboring states of Bihar, Orissa and UP constituted historically a substantial section of the Calcutta labour market and many of them were employed as domestics in a state known for its prevalence of domestic service in colonial India. The replacement of male domestics by females was further facilitated by the gradual decline in inter-state migration due to lack of employment opportunities in independent WB. The second stage in the changing profile of domestic service in urban WB was arguably set by the migrating girl children from the rural areas of the state to Calcutta city in search for employment between 1971 and 1981.