Contestation and constraint: Commuting domestic workers and their employers in contemporary Kolkata

Lauren Wilks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The shift from live-in to live-out and part-time forms of domestic work has brought greater autonomy and bargaining power for many domestic workers in India, many of whom now live outside the cities where they work. At the same time, the advent of more impersonal and transactional labour relations has led to a series of everyday ambivalences and tensions, with workers and employers simultaneously embracing and resisting these more impersonal and transactional working relationships. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Kolkata and rural West Bengal, and engaging with debates about ‘servitude’ and ‘pragmatic intimacy’, this article explores the work-life accounts of commuting domestic workers in Kolkata. It illustrates the pragmatism with which commuting workers approach and negotiate work and employers, and how they value, inconsistently, both physical/emotional distance from and closeness to employers, depending on their circumstances, experiences, and needs. Job security is, as the article shows more broadly, a key concern for commuters given intense competition and high turnover; thus, while commuters sometimes leave jobs for new ones, in some cases gaining better employment as a result, in many cases they stay and ‘adjust’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSouth Asian History and Culture
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 5 May 2020


  • domestic work
  • Kolkata
  • ethnography
  • commuting
  • agency
  • dignity


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