By Arifa Khan, Post Graduate College of Law, Osmania University, Hyderabad.
The exploitation of women and children domestic workers is regularly reported and with no rights protecting them. Most of the domestic help have become contemporary slaves. They are everywhere, in our homes, around small dhabas, tea stalls and working in every menial job possible. They work but are not considered as a part of the ‘services providing community’. They are paid very less, and many a times abused and met with physical ill-treatment. Hundreds of thousands of them endure untold suffering because of their perceived subordination due to caste, class and simply because of what they do for a living. Abuses range from underpaid wages to forced labour, physical violence, starvation and even death. Many women and children are trafficked and exploited by the placement agencies, which operate openly without any form of restrictions and regulations.
The category of domestic workers has remained outside the ambit of labour laws in India, making them vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Domestic workers are not included in the scope of the current labour laws because of the constraints in the definition of ‘workmen’, ‘employer’ or ‘establishment’. To include the domestic workers under the labour laws, these definitions will have to be amended. The labour laws treat only establishments, mines and factories, as workplaces. Private homes are treated as private spheres beyond the reach of these laws. Bringing the house environment under the ambit of a legal framework is the most challenging issue. The definition of the workman or the employer also excludes the domestic workers from the scope of these laws and even the placement agencies get out from the ambit of the labour laws.
Most of the domestic servants are migrants, women, many are minors, and belong to the lowest end of the economic spectrum. This makes them easy to replace, and easier still to exploit. Cases of torture, beatings, sexual assault, and incarceration are common. In a country where 93% of the workforce is in the unorganised sector and therefore beyond the purview of most labour laws, domestic workers represent a new low in terms of disempowerment: they are not even recognised as workers. Apart from facing routine, structural exploitation in the form of low wages, heavy workload, and long hours, domestic workers face graver dangers, as is evident from cases of employers confining and assaulting them coming to light with frightening regularity.
Domestic workers, around 80 per cent of whom are women, are employed by wealthier Indians to perform household chores, with low pay and little or no job security. Many come from poor, rural parts of the country, are illiterate and innumerate, and live away from their families – leaving them particularly vulnerable to abuse. One woman, Seema, said she was abused by her employers for two years before seeking help from the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, Anti-Slavery International’s partners in India.
POLICY TO HELP DOMESTIC WORKERS
The government is planning to formulate a national policy for domestic workers with an aim to expand the scope of applicable legislation, policies and schemes such as minimum wages, social security and skill development programmes. The new policy proposes to clearly define part-time workers, full-time workers, live-in workers and employers and private placement agencies. The new draft policy, however, does not prescribe a minimum wage for a domestic worker, although the earlier draft in 2015, had proposed a minimum salary of Rs 9,000 per month for the skilled full-time domestic help along with benefits including social security cover and mandatory leave, but it hasn’t come into action yet. The policy intends to set up an institutional mechanism for social security cover, fair terms of employment, grievance redressal and dispute resolution. It provides for recognising domestic workers as workers with the right to register themselves with the State Labour Department or any other suitable mechanism.
The policy proposes to promote the rights of domestic workers to organise and form their own unions/associations and affiliate with other unions/associations. The policy will also provide for a model contract of employment with well defined period of work and rest along with regulation of the recruitment and placement agencies by respective governments through formulation of a policy. The new policy is also likely to make it mandatory for placement agencies to charge a one-time 15-day salary from domestic workers and in turn provide them with social security cover, including medical and health insurance. Government of India also signed the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention, ‘Decent work for Domestic Workers’ and the inclusion of domestic workers in the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill as a step towards protecting the rights of the domestic workers.
Announcing the plan, India’s Labour Ministry said that it would “explicitly and effectively expand the scope of applicable legislations, policies and schemes to grant domestic workers rights that are enshrined in laws”. The policy aims to promote right to fair terms of employment relating to minimum wages, protection from abuse/harassment and violence, access to social security benefits such as health insurance, maternity benefits and old age pensions.
The government is working towards bringing benefits enjoyed by workers in other sectors to domestic workers. Millions of low-paid domestic workers employed in India under zero-hour contracts are to be paid a minimum wage, under plans set out by the country’s labour ministry. The draft proposal guarantees domestic workers access to social security benefits, including maternity leave, pensions and health insurance, and offers protection from abuse.
Noting that domestic workers are one of the most unorganised sectors, Amod Kanth, who chairs the Domestic Workers SSC, said, the proposal for change in nomenclature was part of a larger plan to enhance their dignity and improve their working and living conditions. “We plan to train about 25 lakh domestic workers in the next six to seven years. Simultaneously, a National Policy on Domestic Workers is being finalised, while States are also taking initiatives to improve the working conditions,” Kanth said.
The critics say that the wording of the proposal is too vague, and it fails to set out a timeline or details on pay or benefits. Campaigners have long called for a minimum monthly salary of around 9,000 rupees as well as sick pay and holiday but nothing has been done in that regard till now. More than four million workers are employed in India in the unregulated domestic sector, with wages typically two thirds lower than other industries. The line between domestic work and slavery is also often blurred, with many employed in private homes, leaving them open to poor working conditions, exploitation and abuse. Their work — cooking, cleaning, dish-washing, baby-sitting — is not recognised as work by the State. Domestic work as an economic activity is too vast and employs too many to remain unregulated. Domestic workers can be hired and fired at will. The employer has no legally binding obligations. Organising domestic workers has been a huge challenge as the workplace is inaccessible and multiple. As a result, the demand for the better wages or working conditions through an organized union has been weak.
Such changes are only ‘skin-deep’ and would do little to uplift the lot of millions of domestic workers, majority of them women, until they are covered under laws that assure minimum wages and other social security benefits. Some have attempted to justify the government’s reluctance to regulate domestic work on the grounds that the workplace is a private household which should not be encroached upon by the State. But this argument does not hold since the anti-sexual harassment law recognizes the private household as a workplace.
The Government of India took a positive step towards recognising the labour rights of domestic workers. Various governments have drafted varied policies, but they are yet to become a law. Only if the laws and policies work in a milieu with the employers being equally sensitive about those who are employed under them, the empty spaces and voices which we often tend to ignore will finally get noticed in a society where a human will finally be free and not be bound in chains. The present policy itself is a bit weak, there is no onus on employers, and we see little chance of it being effectively implemented; unless the attitude towards domestic workers changes, their situation will not improve. Domestic workers are like labourers in any other sector. Their work has to be recognized by the government and their rights need to be protected by law.