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Domestic Workers: Harsh, Everyday Realities

Despite the fact that domestic workers are indispensable in middle and upper class homes, the value of their work is not adequately recognised while the law ensures them very limited protection.


Harsh, Everyday Realities

Despite the fact that domestic workers are indispensable in middle and upper class homes, the value of their work is not adequately recognised while the law ensures them very limited protection.


egislation to regulate the working conditions of domestic workers has been on the anvil for some years now in a number of states. However, the political will to enact these laws is missing since employers, who are mainly from the middle and upper classes constitute an important votebank.

The myth about domestic work is that it provides an escape from poverty for poor women and also that since it is non-hazardous in nature it is all right even if children are employed for the purpose. In fact, the majority of the middle and the upper middle classes, who employ domestic workers, believe they are being benevolent when they employ a child in household work and give her shelter, food and clothing. The recent arrest of a Mumbai resident on charges of repeatedly raping his 12-yearold domestic help over a year does more than just question this myth (Hindustan Times, January 1, 2006). This is not a stray case, as an interaction with National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), the only national body of domestic workers,

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006 revealed. The organisation regularly receives reports of such incidents, where women and children are beaten, sexually assaulted and brutally treated. 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.

For a sector that is so “visible” in urban India, statistics on the number of workers, their sex and age are surprisingly scarce. The limited data available are estimates based on localised field surveys.

According to the 1989 Shramshakti report, there were at that time 16.8 lakh female domestic workers in the country as against 6.2 lakh male workers [Bhatt 1989]. This report confirmed the findings of a 12city study, perhaps the first of its kind, carried out in the early 1980s by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), which estimated that females constituted 78 per cent of domestic workers. In Orissa, a 1997 study by the department of applied economics of Vani Vihar, Utkal University, cited by Manipadma Jena (2004) revealed a strong preference among employers for girl-children, particularly part-time domestic workers. Invariably, all research points to the fact that child domestic workers are preferred, not only because they “cost” less for employers but are more pliable.

Children, who are placed in domestic work are typically brought to cities from their hometowns in the name of giving them a better life and secure shelter. In most of the cases, these children are not paid any wages as they live in with the employer and are provided food and clothing in return for their services. There are no holidays, education or recreation.

There are also household help who provide their services part-time. These women or children cook, clean and wash once or twice a day for a monthly salary. Though relatively better off than their fulltime counterparts, they face similar problems in terms of low wages, abuse at work and no holidays.

The Bombay Houseworkers’ Solidarity, as a part of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, has been voicing its concerns on domestic workers for a long time now. It found its beginnings in 1985 in Tamil Nadu, where a small group of domestic workers started to meet regularly to share and talk about their problems – stories of violence, abuse, long hours of work, no time off, and lack of food, sleep and play. Soon other groups started in Mumbai, Patna, Chennai, Varanasi, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Jharkhand, and the north-east followed. Though the first survey on domestic workers was carried out as early as in the 1980s, it was only in the 1990s that small efforts were made by the groups in different states to press the local governments to enact legislation to regulate conditions of work.

Child Domestic Workers

The government of India prohibited child labour through the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 1987 but this law does not recognise domestic work as hazardous and does not find any mention in the list of prohibited occupations and processes. Children, especially girl-children continue to be forced into domestic work to supplement family income. The ILO calls them “nowhere children” a term that explains that these children are neither enrolled in schools nor are reported to be economically active.

In 1999, 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. It was thereafter that the government of Tamil Nadu included domestic workers in its list of unorganised workers. In 2000 the central government passed a legislation stating that no government employee should hire a child less than 14 years of age as a domestic help in his or her home. But the law remains largely unpublicised and therefore, not enforced either.

According to Bombay Houseworkers’ Solidarity, Mumbai has approximately 45,000 children in domestic work; 90 per cent of them girls. It is difficult to have an exact estimate or conduct a survey of these children as most of them live with their employers and do not have a group of their own.

Women Domestic Workers

In a society where much of women’s work is informalised and undervalued, domestic work remained unrecognised as a legitimate form of activity. It was thus “invisible” even within the domain of unorganised work. Even today, it is no surprise that domestic workers are not addressed as a group of workers who need support from the state – in the form of regular and fair wages, holidays, safe conditions of work, pension and other benefits. They do not even find a mention in the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Bill 2005.

The invisibility of domestic work also made the workers in this area pliant, they have traditionally accepted lower wages, and physical and sexual abuse at work without questioning it. Added to this was a deep lack of dignity that the women workers had come to associate with themselves and their work. Even today, a sizeable chunk of employers are suspicious of domestic workers and regard them as cheats and thieves.

However, according to the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, the attitude of women domestic workers towards their work has been changing. They have recognised their work as significant, the absence of which can bring any household to a standstill. They have formed networks, share a sense of solidarity together and challenge ill-treatment or unfair wages at work [Jameson 2005]. January 9, 2006 saw a demonstration on the occasion of world domestic workers’ day. Domestic workers all over India, who were a part of the movement, struck work for a day, including an estimated 10,000 in Mumbai alone. The goal was to remind the government about the bill concerning rights of domestic workers that was tabled in Parliament in 1998 and secure “recognition, dignity and justice to all domestic workers”.

Legislation passed in some states like Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have also introduced minimum wages for domestic workers. In Tamil Nadu, domestic workers are recognised as part of the unorganised sector and can also form worker unions. But these efforts remain half-hearted because the most daunting problem for domestic workers remains that of fair wages, followed by provisions for holidays, a pension or some kind of security after work. The same work, say, cleaning, cooking and washing can fetch a woman Rs 2,500 or Rs 250, depending on the locality she works in, not on the amount of work, or whether the employing family consists of two people or 12.

About the Bill

A series of small initiatives have been taken in some states owing to the advocacy campaigns by NGOs and workers’ union. The most significant issue for domestic workers remains that of fair and adequate wages. While the cost of living in the cities has skyrocketed, the incomes of the middle

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

class have increased considerably, the incomes of domestic workers continue to be meagre. Usually the women do not want to risk their jobs by asking for a raise since they can be replaced swiftly, given the high supply of labour.

Karnataka became the first state to fix a minimum living wage for domestic workers in 2004 so as to establish some kind of fairness in wages. It was fixed at Rs 1,600 per month for an eight-hour day of domestic work, without any assurance of “living” wages. It was calculated on the basis of the number of hours put in rather than the type of chores undertaken. The trade union formed by the Stree Jagruti Samiti in Bangalore (‘Caught in a Vicious Circle’, Deccan Herald, Tuesday, January 31, 2006) pointed out that the proposed sum was inadequate as it assumed that a domestic worker would only provide additional income to the family. And since domestic workers are a part of the unorganised sector, even these wages are not ensured. Even if they were paid the minimum amount, it would only meet a quarter of their needs.

In Maharashtra, after intense lobbying, the state labour board issued guidelines regulating the services of domestic workers in 2000 [Sharma 2003]. The service rules included paid leave, travel allowance, fairer wages, etc. But the employers protested vehemently because they argued that the guidelines did not tackle the problem of absenteeism and that they were onesided. Any acceptable set of regulations should be mutually formulated by the workers and the employers. Medha Satte from Pune Shahar Moolkari Sangathna reasons that the nature of these guidelines

– just a notification and not a government order – rendered them ineffective. The domestic workers bill that was first tabled in Maharashtra in 1998 is still pending. However, the bill was redrafted in 2003 and asks for recognition of domestic work as legitimate, significant work. It also asks for regularised hours of work, casual and sick leave, medical benefits, insurance and other remuneration that any other work would deserve. It also provides for registration of the workers with a welfare board which can act as a mediating mechanism between the employers and employees. It will channelise payments to workers; decide on the hourly minimum wage as per the nature of work, act as an arbitrator in case of conflicts, look after the accounts, prepare an annual report and submit it to the state government.

The irony of the situation remains the indispensability of domestic workers and yet employers take them for granted. Through unionisation and the resolute efforts of some organisations, they have found a representation and an ability to ask for what is due to them. As the workers wait for a nod from the political executive in Maharashtra to have legislation enacted, the employment of children for household chores has to be prohibited. The provision of an independent arbitrator or a board will ensure that exploitation of all kinds is stopped at work. While the feminisation of labour in domestic work is likely to continue, the laws are expected to provide dignity and security to the women in whatever they do.




Bhatt, Ela (1989): Shramshakti: Report of the National Commission on Self-employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector.

Jameson, Kate (2005): ‘Changing Attitudes and Perceptions about Child Domestic Work Report Based on Qualitative and Quantitative Research in Mumbai, India’, National Domestic Workers Welfare Trust (NDWM).

Jena, Manipadma (2004): ‘Orissa’s Child Domestic Workers: The ‘Nowhere’ Children’, InfoChange News and Features, July.

National Domestic Workers’ Movement/Bombay Houseworkers’ Solidarity (2005): Behind Closed Doors: Children in Domestic Work, Mumbai.

Sharma, Kalpana (2003): ‘In the Name of Servitude’, The Hindu, Sunday, August 24.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 and Rules December 23, 1986.

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

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