Running on time: domestic work and commuting in West Bengal, India
While there is a significant and burgeoning body of literature on (paid) domestic work in India, much of which explores the broader context of migration within which this labour often takes place, very little looks at domestic workers’ commutes – daily or regular travel between home and work which is similarly linked to processes of neoliberalism and urban development. At the same time, much of the wider literature on commuting – which has been conducted mainly in Northern contexts – fails to properly consider the experience of commuting; furthermore, this literature often paints a rather rosy picture of commuting – as a complex mobility strategy or a space for thinking, relaxing, and socialising – which does not generally fit with the situation in India. This thesis, then, aims to fill this gap and offer a corrective to the wider literature on commuting by providing a rich and detailed account of the everyday lives and experiences of commuting domestic workers in Kolkata. In doing so, it contributes to wider sociological debates about work, precarity, and time/labour intensification. Drawing on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Kolkata and rural West Bengal and utilising novel methodological approaches and tools (multi-sited and ‘moving’ ethnography), I explore the experience of commuting for domestic workers in Kolkata – in other words, what it is like to undertake these journeys, which are often long and arduous, and what it is like to combine them with a heavy burden of paid and unpaid domestic work. I also draw attention to the embedded and cumulative nature of commuting, illustrating how commuting affects other areas of workers’ lives and making a case for commuting as a category of analysis. The commute, as we shall see, requires careful and constant negotiation: it involves time and money, and it takes a serious toll on workers’ health and relationships, contributing to extreme time pressure and often causing problems for workers, with employers and with husbands and families. Overall, the thesis highlights the intense insecurity commuters face, as well as the pragmatism with which they manage this insecurity in their day-to-day lives. At work and at home, commuters make everyday bargains and trade-offs, often swapping one form of precarity for another; the language of ‘adjustment’ and the question, ki korbo? (what will I do? What else can I do?), is, as we shall see, a constant refrain in their accounts. The thesis also shows, however, that while the experience of commuting is predominantly articulated by workers as one of pain and suffering (koshto), and all those who can give it up after a certain point do so, workers are, at the same time, forging networks and solidarities through commuting, which not only help them to endure the structural burdens of commuting and paid/unpaid domestic work but may, in future, also help them to bargain for better conditions of work.