Domestic Workers in India: Status, Issues, Legal and Policy Framework

As per the ILO convention 189, a domestic worker is a person engaged in domestic chores within an employment relationship. India is witnessing a constant increase in the number of domestic workers. Lack of bargaining powers makes domestic workers as one of the most exploited sections of the society. They are more vulnerable to the ill treatment at the hands of the employer. The recent Noida incident has highlighted the undesired nexus between the employer, police and also involving the politicians. The case involves matter of missing female domestic worker which gradually took the colour of a communal confrontation. However, what is more disturbing is the fact that the police while investigating the riot ignored to take action against the main incident which caused the riot i.e. missing case of the female domestic worker.

Basic Data on Domestic Workers-Population and Demography

The population of domestic workers in India in the last 100 years has witnessed huge declines and upswings. As per the Census data, in 1931, there were 2.7 million people classified as “servants”. The Census data in 1971 has recorded around 67,000 people as servants. The low figures were attributed to the changes that happened at that point of time like departure of British colonial administrators who were able to hire these workers, as well as the fact that in the first decade of independence the public were not so well off to hire domestic workers.

As per the book titled, Maid In India written by Tripti Lahiri, the number of domestic workers in India has increased 120% between 1991 and 2001. Even though, India had witnessed stagnation and shrinking of female labor participation, the absolute number of women working as domestic workers went up. Between, the 2001 and 2011, the number of female workers in the age group of 15-59 had increased by 17%. In cities, the increase was over 70% from 14.7 million in 2001 to 25 million in 2011. With increasing prosperity among people, the demand for domestic help increases.

According to the 2011 report of The Task Force On Domestic Workers, the number of domestic workers have increased 222% since 1999-2000. Overall, the number of domestic workers range from 4.75 million (National Sample Survey’s 61st round, 2004-05) to 6.4 million in Census 2001.

As per Lahiri, women constitute nearly two-thirds of the workforce in this unorganized sector which also comprises of chauffeurs and security guards.

Majority of the female domestic workers come from India’s least developed states like Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Assam. They often travel cross-country and transnational to seek employment opportunities. Most of them are under the legal working age and get wages less than the minimum fixed by the government.

Major Issues relating to Domestic Workers

The major issue is that working in other people’s houses which are considered as private spaces makes it difficult to bring the house environment under the ambit of a legal framework.

Secondly, since most of the domestic workers are illiterate they are ignorant of their rights and are easily exploited and deprived of wages and humane working conditions.

Since most of the domestic workers are recruited from rural or tribal areas it becomes difficult for them to adapt themselves to new environment, culture, and language which in turn increase their loneliness and anxiety. They have no or very little time to socialize with friends or relatives and most often is prohibited from doing so. Coupled with the lack of state regulation of domestic service, the statuses of the domestic workers have been reduced to nothing short of servility. The lack of redressal mechanism of their grievances also makes them resort to violent forms of agitation as witnessed recently in Noida incident.

Around 90% of the domestic help in India are women and children (predominantly girls) in the age group of 12 to 75. It is estimated that 25% of them are below the age of 14. They are mostly engaged in activities that are traditionally seen as women’s work such as cooking, washing, and cleaning. In Indian society, the stigma associated with domestic work is heightened by the caste system since the chores like cleaning and sweeping are associated with the people belonging to the ‘so-called’ low castes. The naming of domestic workers as ‘servants’ and ‘maids’ have made them attain an undignified status and inferiority.

Domestic workers are not provided just wages and humane working conditions. The wages paid to them are well below the minimum wages for unskilled or semi-skilled workers. In addition, most of them are made to work for a minimum of 15 hours a day, seven days a week. In average, their working hours range between 8 to over 18 hours a day. Their wages and rest time are at the employer’s mercy.

Domestic workers are also sometimes the victims of suspicion. They are often accused of thefts and are subjected to physical violence, police interrogation, conviction, and even dismissal.

Classification

Domestic workers are classified into:

  • Live-in domestic workers
  • Part-time / Live-out domestic worker
  • Migrant Domestic Workers
    • Inter-state domestic workers
    • Overseas domestic workers
Live-in Domestic workers

Live-in domestic workers are those who reside at the place of employment. They are indulged in all types of domestic work ranging from housekeeping, washing clothes, utensils, cooking, children or elderly care. They are solely dependent on their employers for fulfilling their basic needs like food and shelter. Most of the workers under this category are women (married young girls, separated or widowed) who have migrated or have been trafficked from rural areas to cities.

Part-time Domestic Workers

Part-time domestic workers are usually locals or migrants of the cities in which they are employed. They reside in slums and work with multiple employers

to earn their livelihood. They are called part-timers as they do not reside with the employer. They are less dependent on their employers for their basic needs than full time domestic workers. As they live with their families, they have a greater degree of independence when compared with full time domestic workers.

Migrant Domestic workers

Migration of domestic workers is of two types:

  • Inter-state Domestic Workers
  • Overseas Domestic Workers
Inter-state Domestic Workers

Many women workers migrate from rural areas to work as domestic workers in cities. They usually migrate due to debt bondage, poverty, sudden death in the family, natural disasters, male unemployment and man-made crisis situations (such as insurgency). The glamour of city life also in some cases acts as a pull factor for young girls and women to migrate to big cities. For them, working in cities would is regarded as a solution to poverty.

The “trafficking agencies” have a major part to play in encouraging internal migration. As a part of this, villagers return to their villages for recruiting more women, girls and children into this labour sector by giving false promises.

Overseas Domestic Workers

Many Indian women workers travel abroad to improve quality of life for themselves and for their family in India. These are often live-in domestic workers and are most often victims of physical and sexual abuse. As these workers find themselves in a foreign environment, they find it difficult to get adjusted to new languages, food, and cultures.

The increased demand for domestic help in richer industrialized countries provides opportunities for the domestic workers in poorer and less developed countries like India. Indian domestic workers increasingly travel to countries in the Middle East, South East Asia, Europe and North America in search of high paying jobs. However, these workers end up getting the lowest salary for a

foreign worker.

Major issues faced by migrant workers

The major issues faced by these workers are corrupt recruitment practices, lack of work contracts, withheld salaries, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the workplace.

Most often, the migrants become the victims of scams of the fly-by-night brokers. These brokers often cheat the migrants by falsely promising job abroad and do not take necessary steps to secure the appropriate paperwork so that these migrants can legally work as domestic workers. This makes many migrants to find themselves in a foreign country without the necessary papers. These make the migrants work under conditions of slavery without the ability to complain to the police. In India, procedure for migrating abroad for work remains largely unregulated. The government has not implemented a pre-migration program for educating migrants of their rights.

Law and Order versus Rights-based Approaches

As per various studies and reports, domestic workers are the victims of discrimination based on grounds of religion, caste and ethnicity. Often these challenges are related to law and order framework instead of a labour rights framework. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, has recorded 3,564 cases of alleged violence against domestic workers reported in 2012. The corresponding figures for the years 2011 and 2010 are 3,517 and 3,422 respectively.

Though legislations like the Unorganized Social Security Act, 2008, Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and Minimum Wages Schedules are related to domestic workers, there still remains an absence of comprehensive, uniformly applicable, national legislation that promises fair terms of employment and decent working conditions for domestic workers in India.

Making public to accept household as a place of work remains a challenge. Similarly, implementation of labour laws such as minimum wages and regularized work hours, will also remain as a challenge. Placing such regulations in households will be complex as the nature of domestic work is unique compared to other forms of work. The sector lacks effective means to regulate working conditions simply because unlike work in organized sector, domestic work is not guided by clear and agreed production or output goals. Hence, enforcing labour laws in this sector remains a significant bottleneck. Moreover, the idea of labour inspectors entering private households and ensuring regulations will impinge on the privacy norms.

Policymakers, legislative bodies and general public must recognize the existence of an employment relationship in domestic work. This will make them to view domestic workers as not just “helpers” but as employed workers entitled to the rights and dignity.

Legislations

After independence, the government of India had passed more than 40 Central Labour Legislations. But the beneficiaries of these legislations were only the workers of the organized sector. These legislations failed to extend its benefits to the workers of the unorganised sector. Around 93% of the workforce in our country belongs to the unorganised sector.

The government has to amend the following legislations in order to extend the benefits and protection to the domestic workers: The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, Workman’s Compensation Act, 1923, Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979, Payment of Wages Act, 1936, Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 and the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972.

In 2010, the National Commission for Women (NCW) came up with a bill called ‘Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, 2010’. However the bill failed to achieve much in empowering the domestic workers.

As a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 189 on Decent Working conditions for Domestic Workers, India needs to bring domestic work under the purview of state regulation, but India has still not ratified the convention.

In total, the failure of the government to regulate domestic work has given the absolute power of regulation to the employers resulting in perpetual exploitation of the labour class.

State Protection for Domestic Workers

Regulation of domestic work through legislation can be the only way out to address the abuses faced by the domestic workers.

The state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have come up with several measures to improve the working conditions of domestic workers as well as to provide access to social security schemes.

Seven states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, and Rajasthan have introduced minimum wages for domestic workers.

States like Kerala, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu have also constituted Welfare Boards for domestic workers. By registering with these boards, the domestic workers can avail of the welfare benefits.

Despite these efforts, majority of domestic workers still remain outside of the purview of labour laws. Much more need to be done even today.

Addressing Gender Inequality through Equality of Domestic Work

According to the 2014 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, Indian women do about 15 times more household work than Indian men. Though domestic work has made many women to take benefits of economic autonomy, it has resulted in to gender equality. Globally, household responsibilities and unpaid care continues to act as significant barriers to women’s labour market participation. Time and again, ILO has argued for the need to change the idea that care giving is a private responsibility unique to women. It calls for the development of greater sense of social co-responsibility between men and women. It supports redistributing reproductive work/unpaid care work between men and women. Society as a whole should strive to foster alternative models of maternity, paternity and masculinity. So what is needed is reconfiguration of the current model of financing of ‘care’ which relies on the households, the women and the domestic workers, to the state. This can be achieved by making available quality child care centre especially for the low income population. Effective policies must be developed to enable workers to meet demands of unpaid work such as leave policies and working time policies.

ILO’s Demands

ILO’s demands for recognizing the rights of domestic workers are two-pronged:

  • ILO calls for fair terms of employment that are no less favouarble when compared with other workers.
  • ILO calls for the active participation of the state. It wants recognition of the presence of structural inequality perpetuated by not recognizing the ‘care work’.

Conclusion

As of now, domestic work remains as a readily-available livelihood option for millions of women. With the involvement of large number of women, it becomes important to look into the working conditions of these domestic workers.

The rights and equality issues of domestic workers including safety, working conditions, wages, social protection, employer’s expectations and employer-employee relationships needs to be made available to the domestic workers.

The government has to address the key issues like fixing fair minimum wages, provision of weekly days off and paid annual leaves, protection from physical and sexual abuse, social security etc. across India’s states.

Model Questions

What are the major problems in devising a proper legal and policy framework around the domestic workers in India?  Discuss.

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