India’s domestic worker: down on her knees and mostly out

Ignored, abused and unorganised, domestic helpers remain the outcasts of urban India.

JUNE 16 was ‘Father’s Day’ and lovely quotes on fatherhood spilled over from mainstream media to facebook and twitter. June 16 was also the ‘International Domestic Workers’ Day’ and it seems nobody really noticed. A few women workers with placards marched on the streets of Chennai seeking fixed minimum wages but then again nobody was really interested. As long as houses were cleaned, dishes done and kids put to bed there was not much trouble in the world. No matter how essential the services of domestic workers are, the reality is as harsh as the respect given to their profession.

Decent Work

Domestic workers are not covered by most labour laws in India. Image: ILO report

Rough estimates suggest that we have around 50 million domestic workers in the country today, a growth rate of 681 per cent since the 2001 census which put the figure at 6.4 million. Paid domestic work remained a male dominated occupation in pre-independence India, but today women constitute 71 per cent of this sector making it the largest female occupation in urban areas. However, we still lack a comprehensive regulatory mechanism for this sector. The fact that a large number of domestic workers are migrant women belonging to lower caste or ethnic minority communities makes matters worse.

Maid in India

Fixed minimum wages, pay according to work, maternity leave, medical aid and other such basic essentials provided to any employee are still a mirage for domestic workers. While all other workers have their unions, domestic workers remain ill organised. In fact, at a recent meeting the Union Cabinet expressed apprehensions that if domestic workers are allowed to form unions they will lead to law and order problems. The Cabinet members seem to have taken to heart the jokes about maids keeping their employers to ransom.

Not that forming a union is easy for domestic workers. Traditional places of work like factories and construction sites are open public spaces, but domestic workers can’t be approached at their places of work. Targetting those staying in slums also leaves out a large number who are live-in workers and hence remain isolated. In India, domestic workers are not covered by most labour legislations because of constraints in the definition of either the ‘workman’, ‘employer’ or ‘establishment’. The nature of their work, the specificity of employee-employer relationship, and the workplace being the private household, excludes their coverage from the existing labour laws including the Minimum Wages Act 1948, Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Workmen’s Compensation Act 1926, Inter State Migrant Workers Act 1976, Payment of Wages Act 1936, Equal Remuneration Act 1976, Employee’s State Insurance Act, Employees Provident Fund Act, Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972 etc.

This is a reality in many other countries. A report on 65 countries by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says only 19 of them have laws or regulations specifically concerning domestic work. The same report found that in India domestic workers get only 31.6 per cent of the average wages for other workers. This was lower than not-very-impressive international figure of 40 per cent. Though some states in India, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Karnataka and Rajasthan, have fixed minimum wages for domestic workers, they have not been able to get desired result. “In many of these states, the minimum wages fixed are lower than current rate of wage and in others, the workers themselves are not aware due to lack of organisational support. In addition, there has been no concerted efforts to at least make employers aware through information in the media,” says Christine Mary of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement.

Organisations Vs Placement Agencies

There is a dearth of rights-based organisations for domestic workers, but placement agencies are thriving in all big cities. As per broad estimates, there are over 800-1000 placement agencies in the capital city of Delhi itself. Most of these placement agencies are husband-wife partnerships running from one room apartments. Many agencies only have a phone number, usually a mobile phone, and no address. These middle men source workers from poor and tribal areas promising great work opportunities, house them at unknown places and take huge advances from employers. Many a times, the domestic workers are not paid due wages, wages are delayed or a part is retained by the agency thus creating the conditions of indentured labour. The involvement of these agencies in women and child trafficking has also come to fore many a times.

On the other hand, there are organisations like Nirmala Niketan, a rights-based organisation functioning like a cooperative of tribal women who train and place tribal girls for work in different areas of Delhi. In the weekly meetings at the Nirmala Niketan office, these girls are encouraged to befriend other domestic workers in their colonies, who have found work through other placement agencies. Vulnerable cases among them are reported and rescued. However, such organisations are very few and far between.

Policy or law?

The Indian government woke up to the plight of domestic workers in 2009 when the Ministry of Labour and Employment set up a task force for formulation of a national policy on domestic work. One of its earliest proposal to extend Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna (RSBY) has already been approved by the Cabinet and related guidelines issued while the draft national policy is still under deliberation. The policy intends to converge health and maternity benefits, death and disability benefits and old age pension for domestic workers on the same platform.

However, not everybody is impressed. “The very premise that a policy can bring a substantial change is a hogwash. A policy can never have a mandatory character and will be flouted rampantly. What we need is a central law specifically addressing needs of domestic workers,” says Subhash Bhatnagar, the legal adviser to Nirmala Niketan. A petition to the Prime Minister by the National Platform for Domestic Workers seeks enactment of a sectoral law on the lines of Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1948, and The Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996. “The reason these legislations work is that they all mandate establishment of a tripartite board comprising representatives of workers, employers and the government. The board is responsible for registration of workers for social security, collection of employers’ contribution to the welfare fund and regulation of related organisations like placement agencies. Such a set up helps manage an unorganised sector more efficiently than a policy which is not mandatory,” says Bhatnagar.

But more than a law, it’s the social respect and recognition given to the profession which will make the real difference. The fact that our economic analysts ignore the contribution of domestic workers to the national GDP underscores the shortsightedness we suffer from.

This article has been republished from GOI Monitor.

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