Home >Opinion >Who will help India’s domestic helps?

This week has brought us another news story of a domestic worker in Delhi—a minor, just 13 years old—being confined, starved and physically assaulted by her employer before being finally rescued from virtual slavery in a household. This comes within a month of the much publicized case of an 18-year-old Santhal girl from Jharkhand who underwent brutal torture at the hands of her employer, before being rescued by an NGO working with the police.

Over the past few years, there have been innumerable cases of domestic workers—nearly all of them female, many of them minors—being abused and exploited by their employers. The abuses range from withholding of wages to starvation, not allowing time for sleep or rest, to beatings, torture, and sexual exploitation. There has been much outcry from the media, concerned citizens, and non-governmental organizations over this occupational malignancy, and calls for legislation to regulate the employment of domestic workers and protect their rights. But so far the Indian state has responded to such calls with little more than apathy.

Paid domestic work continues to be excluded from the central list of scheduled employments under the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. It is not covered under either the Payment of Wages Act (1936) or the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1923) or the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act (1970) or the Maternity Benefit Act (1961).

Three years ago, the National Commission for Women (NCW) drafted a ‘Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, 2010’ Bill. It’s been gathering dust. It’s been more than two years since India became a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 189, which mandates decent working conditions for domestic workers, but it has still not ratified it. (When a country ratifies an international convention, it makes a formal commitment to implement all the obligations provided in the convention, and to report periodically to the concerned body—in this case, the ILO—on the measures it has taken. By still not ratifying a Convention it signed in June 2011, the government has demonstrated pretty clearly how serious it is about ensuring the welfare of domestic workers.)

There has been much forced cheer over the inclusion of domestic workers under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). But sadly, this is another travesty. A domestic worker cannot register for this scheme unless her employment is verified by two out of four authorized agencies—of which three, given the disparities linked to power, gender, class and caste, are frequently in an adversarial or prejudicial relation with her—the police, the employer, the employers’ resident welfare associations, and unions. As social scientist N. Neetha observes in her essay, ‘Paid Domestic Work: Making Sense of the Jigsaw Puzzle’, “No other worker in the country is at the mercy of so many diverse interests groups in order to claim their eligible entitlement."

The other two central government interventions in recent times, bringing domestic workers under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 look good on paper but inspire little hope of making a difference in the real world in the absence of mechanisms for inspection and enforcement—and not surprisingly, they haven’t.

There has been some action at the state level, with seven states—Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha—notifying minimum wages for domestic workers. But the wage rates have been set so low, and so arbitrarily, that they are irrelevant in the places where the largest proportion of domestic workers are employed—the metros, where due to rising demand the market rates are much higher than the minimum wages (though lower than a living wage). Secondly, because of the task-based fixing of wage rates—as opposed to the usual classification into skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled—the calculations are so complex that a maid who, for instance, cooks, washes utensils, mops the floor, washes clothes, and baby sits in five different households will have to hire a mathematics professor to do the correct calculations and get her statutory dues.

In any case, if the above legislations are any indication, it doesn’t seem like new laws alone are the answer. They will not make an impact unless efforts are made to understand, and then address, the broader social, cultural and economic factors that foster the exploitative dynamics at work. A thorough exploration of these is beyond the scope of this piece. But we can take a quick look at the four factors that I believe have everything to do with the easy vulnerability of domestic workers to abuse and exploitation.

The first is distress migration. It is no coincidence that so many of the domestic workers in Delhi are from the most backward regions and communities, and often tribals, from Jharkhand. It is one thing to migrate to a city seeking glamour, an exciting life, and better opportunities. It is something else to be forced out of your village by economic hardship. Distress migration puts the migrant, who is often illiterate, and has no support system in the city, at the mercy of human traffickers, assorted middle men/ agents and, at the end of the food chain, the employers. In the absence of any regulation, the young girls are vulnerable to exploitation every step of the way.

The second is the cultural and economic devaluation of domestic work. This finds expression even in what little legislation for domestic workers as exists. To take just one example, all of the seven states that have notified minimum wages for domestic work have fixed them lower than that for other unskilled labour, such as construction work, and also lower for the same work done in a conventional workplace outside a household. In other words, a woman carrying cement at a construction site for eight hours stands to earn more than a maid working as a care giver in a private home for eight hours. Similarly, a woman employed as a cleaner by the government or a private employer outside the household would earn more than someone who does cleaning inside a home. Why this discrimination and devaluation? As Neetha points out, “Nothing but the difficulty in accepting housework as ‘productive work’ underlies this devaluation."

The third factor is what sociologist Peter Custers terms “the sectoral sexual division of labour". According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, the number of women employed as domestic workers increased fourfold from 1999-2000 to 2009-2010. There is no disputing that the majority of domestic workers in India are women. Here’s the million dollar question: Why aren’t more men represented in this workforce? Why do employers discriminate against men who might, presumably, want to come in and do your dishes, mop the floor and wash your clothes? Or do they?

We know the answer: house work is still seen as the domain of the woman. In our culture, it is taken as a matter of common sense that a female domestic worker would anyway have done/be doing the house work in her own home and therefore be familiar/skilled with the tasks involved. Besides, the home is still seen as the “preserve" of the woman while men’s work belongs to the world outside.

So, in a typical urban middle class or upper middle class household where both partners go to work, it may have been expected, once upon a time, that the husband and wife together would share the housework between them and thus the domestic chores would get done. But in reality, in what must count as a slap on the face of the women’s liberation movement, even as the middle class woman joined the workforce and attained financial independence, more often than not she was able to liberate herself from housework only by transferring it to women less fortunate (economically) than herself.

In theory—market theory, that is—this ought to be a good thing, for isn’t housework now finally getting due recognition as an economic activity that is to be paid for? Well, not really, and this brings us to the all important fourth factor: a refusal to regard the home as a workplace even when it is one.

Your bed room might be a part of your home, a zone of privacy and intimacy, and beyond the purview of state regulation. But for the domestic worker sweeping the floor of your bedroom, it is her workplace. To be able to secure her human and labour rights, it would be necessary to regard your bedroom—insofar as you are willing to compromise your privacy to the extent of paying a stranger to clean up after you—as the equivalent of any other workplace, say, a factory or the office of a private employer. For instance, labour inspectors can visit any private employer, ask to see the wage register, and check working conditions. But none of the minimum wage notifications allow for labour inspections of homes. Nor does any law in this country require employers—even in states where minimum wage stipulations exist—to maintain wage registers.

The Indian state is clearly not ready to consider the home seriously as a workplace worth regulation or monitoring. So long as there’s a mindset that the home is a private space even when it’s a workplace, and domestic work is just house work and not ‘proper’ work, the apathy of the state towards the plight of domestic workers will continue. And so long as their labour rights remain ill-defined and unprotected, their human rights will continue to be violated.

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