Empowering domestic workers

Attention must be drawn to the lakhs of domestic helps in India who do not receive any legal protection.

The number of domestic workers in India varies from official estimates of around five million to loosely defined unofficial estimates of 10 million. Between 2000 and 2010, women (young girls included) made up for more than 75 per cent of the new entrants into the domestic workforce. In 2010, more than 68 per cent of all domestic workers were employed in the urban areas of the country having less than 32 per cent of the total population then. Most domestic workers are illiterate or have not crossed their school finals, with no or low skills, and are among the poorest and most exploited. They are dependent on their employers for their survival with no law to regulate their work-life and little access to resources. More than two lakh children below-15 years are employed in roadside dhabas and domestic households.

The Government of India has been contemplating a policy for domestic workers. There is surely a need for a codified law. India has not ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on decent work for domestic workers, though it has been a participant since June 2011. The contention of the Centre is that national laws and practices are not in conformity with the provisions laid down by the global agency and, as such, it has not yet ratified the law. Also, the central government is of the view that domestic work falls under the purview of the state. It is primarily the responsibility of state governments to protect citizens, including domestic workers, from exploitation. However, a comprehensive and uniform Central legislation is the need of the hour.

The Central government has enacted the Unorganised Sector Social Security Act, 2008, for providing social security to unorganised workers including domestic workers. Sadly, it is vague and has no clear definition of domestic workers, nor are they categorised in different segments depending on the nature and tenure of their work. Hence, it is not clear how and in which category they are being recognised

Minimum wages have been fixed for domestic workers by seven states including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, and Rajasthan, but it is only on pen and paper with no enforceability. Given the nature of their work, their minimum wages should be fixed on an eight-hourly basis, round-the-clock services, four-hour basis, hourly basis and based on skills – not on gender, as noted in these state resolutions, explains Trisharan Sahare, National Coordinator, All India Domestic Workers' Congress.

Further, they are also denied health benefits though they are covered under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). Indeed, the inclusion of domestic workers under RSBY is another travesty. A domestic worker cannot register for this scheme unless her/his employment is verified by two out of four authorised agencies, the police, the employer, the employers' resident welfare associations, and unions. Of these, the first three, given the disparities linked to power, gender, class and caste, are frequently in an adversarial or prejudicial relation with her.

Another impediment is the number of the workforce engaged in this industry. Unfortunately, we have no concrete number though it is being estimated to stand at about 10 million. However, the 2011 NSSO data reveals that about 3.9 million workers are engaged in this industry, which has been contested by labour unions.

The domestic workers are also not provided with any leaves/ holidays/paid leaves. They are also denied maternity leaves. Domestic workers are also mostly migrants and, as such, any state legislation will not serve the purpose. Central legislations are thus required to truly address the problems of domestic workers.

The state governments of Kerala, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu have also constituted Welfare Boards for domestic workers who are able to avail welfare benefits by registering with these Boards. But awareness is lacking among the workers as well as the employers/organisations. Tasks performed by them are not recognised as 'work'.

Domestic workers in India continue to struggle for visibility and recognition. While several legislations such as the Unorganised Social Security Act, 2008, Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and Minimum Wages Schedules notified in various states refer to domestic workers, there remains an absence of comprehensive and uniform national legislation that guarantees fair terms of employment and decent working conditions. Domestic workers should, however, be guaranteed the same terms of employment as enjoyed by other workers. Neither of these recognises domestic helpers as right-bearing workers. Fixing fair, minimum wages, providing weekly days off and paid annual leaves, protecting from physical and sexual abuse, ensuring social security, and a comprehensive legislation are key issues that need to be addressed by the government nationally, and across India's states.

An act similar to the Maharashtra Government's Garelu Kamgar Kalyan Mandal Adhinium 2007 should be enacted by the central and state governments. A proper monitoring and feedback mechanism must be established in the Act. Registration should be made very simple, catering to the needs of all applicants. Trade unions which should be given the authority to certify the said registrations. Political personalities should be kept out from these bodies and committees. Skill development programs must be conducted for domestic labour. Trafficking of all forms of domestic workers should be stopped. And, an independent authority should be appointed for the effective implementation of this Act.

(Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is the School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai campuses; and is a former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity

Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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