Where are the Laws to Protect the Rights of Domestic Workers in India?

The rampant abuse faced by domestic workers urgently necessitates a national policy to provide social and economic protection

Over 50 million people are employed as domestic helps across the country, with women constituting over 75% of this sector. Children too, are a part of this workforce; nearly 200,000 minors are estimated to be employed as help.

In the absence of a national policy, domestic workers are freely exploited: since the sector is largely unorganised, these workers are at the mercy of their employers and suffer under abject poverty, little to no education and a competing demand for jobs which results in depressed wages.

The impending national policy framework for domestic workers—if and when it is passed in Parliament—needs to provide social protection, mandate a minimum wage and fix maximum number of working hours per day.

This reading list highlights the issues to be addressed and points out previous policies by states that have failed to alleviate the aforementioned problems, either through haphazard implementation or by a lack of political will.

1) Domestic Work is Not a Reprieve from Poverty

In the eyes of the law, domestic workers do not fall under the definition of “workmen,” nor is their workplace an “establishment.” This characterisation is often used by the Centre to explain the lack of regulation in the industry.

Commenting upon the rampant exploitation of domestic workers, Neeta N criticises states for ineffective legislation which, apart from not enforcing minimum wage, refuses to close loopholes surrounding work hours. For example, even if eight hours is the stipulated daily work time, such a provision only applies per employer, meaning that someone who works in more than one home could work well beyond the prescribed time.

"The legislations in all the states have conveniently ignored this specificity of the sector by mechanically extending the provision as in the case of other informal sector employment. The only way to prevent a worker from working more than normal hours is to ensure an adequate income, which could be achieved through better hourly wage rates. However none of this seems to concern the states, which have fixed the wages at such low levels."

She also writes about the gendering of domestic work, its segmentation and classification as a “non-skilled” occupation which leads to its valuation based on tasks undertaken.

"The social understanding of housework as women’s work requiring no skill has been at the heart of estimating the value of paid domestic work. Further, the ambiguities and variations across states in terms of periods (hourly, daily and monthly) and a widespread preference for hourly and daily rates are not suggestive of a policy that protects workers…  Not only has domestic work been gendered by these interventions, hierarchies within it based on caste divisions have also been given legal sanction. Wage rates for cleaning tasks, which is dominated by women from the lower castes, are at the low end of the scale wherever a task-based differentiation is followed."

2) Exploitation Must Not be Confused with Benevolence

“Nowhere children,” is a term coined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to define minors that are neither enrolled in school nor economically active.

In India, these children can be found as domestic help. Areeba Hamid writes that children—especially young girls—are preferred as household help not only because they “cost” less but also for their “pliability.” Hiring a child to perform household chores in exchange for food and shelter, the author emphasises, is often a cover for abuse.

"The UN declared “Child domestic servants not only work long hours for a pittance but are particularly vulnerable to sexual as well as other physical abuse” and called it one of the forms of contemporary slavery… Apart from facing the continuous threat of such physical and sexual abuse, domestic workers engage in all kinds of potentially dangerous work like cleaning inaccessible or precariously high objects, are subject to regular use of disinfectants and detergents, are provided insufficient meals and have to work for interminably long hours."

3) The Fantasy of Welfare

Despite several laws having been enacted to protect domestic workers, Sujatha Gothoskar argues that there is a systemic denial of rights to workers. Acts such as the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (UWSSA), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Domestic Workers Welfare Board Act, to name a few, tend to target domestic workers rather than uplift them, as such legislation absolves employers of any responsibility over their employed help’s social welfare, and instead puts the onus to deliver on the state—whose record is patchy at best.

"As there is no cess or contribution from employers, the entire sustainability of the provisions of the Act is in doubt as it depends almost entirely on budgetary support, which is unlikely to see a substantial increase given the financial situation of the state as well as the deficit in the political will of the political class. In fact, worker-activists and unionists have pointed this out as an indication of the lack of political will of the government to actually implement such legislations."

Further, Kiran Moghe’s study on domestic workers in Pune results in a scathing critique of state efforts. She calls the Domestic Workers Welfare Board Act a neo-liberal strategy to create an illusion of benefits without actually providing anything substantive. The promise of some welfare in the future derails unions from the struggle to gain substantive rights.

"The only welfare measure provided so far is that the annual premium (Rs 50) for every registered domestic worker towards coverage of the Janashree Bima Yojana is being paid by the state welfare board. But even this is being done in a piecemeal manner… The other measure is a paltry sum of Rs 2,000 as maternity benefit payable for two children, and Rs 2,000 as ex gratia funeral expenses to be paid to the family of a domestic worker on her death. Needless to say this announcement evoked many sarcastic comments from the workers…  Policies of globalisation are intensifying the exploitation of the unorganised sector. Domestic workers exemplify a situation where this class exploitation is escalated due to both gender and caste."

Read More:
  1. Marriage, Work and Education among Domestic Workers in Kolkata Nilanjana Sengupta and Samita Sen, 2012
  2. Asian Women in International Migration-With Special Reference to Domestic Work and Entertainment | Leela Gulati, 1997
  3. Tribal Migrant Women as Domestic Workers in Mumbai | Sunita Kumari, 2015
  4. Living in Domesti-City: Women and Migration for Domestic Work from Jharkhand | Neha Wadhawan, 2013
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