This week, representatives from 42 countries — including India — came together to create the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), a first-ever formal federation of domestic workers. This important milestone was marred by news of yet another maid being abused in the national capital. The girl, 13, was locked up at home while her employer, an airhostess, jaunted off to Australia. The report came weeks after an 18-year-old maid, who had been abused and beaten, was rescued from another posh Delhi home.
In India. They cook, wash clothes, scour dishes and look after children and the elderly, but ironically enough, domestic help are not considered ‘workers’ because they are engaged in ‘personal service’; and home is not viewed as a workplace. Since 2008, varying versions of a national law and policy have been put forth promising to recognize those who do domestic tasks as ‘workers’ but not much has changed in practice.
As countries around the globe launch new safeguards for their domestic workers, India continues to shy away from adopting a comprehensive protective instrument for household help. On September 5, the landmark Domestic Workers’ Convention 2011 (better known as C189), which set the first global standards for the employment of domestic workers came into force. Adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it brings household help on par with other workers entitling them to weekly offs, minimum wages, holidays and compensation for workplace injury. While India voted in favour of adopting the convention, it is yet to begin work on ratifying it.
The global convention has in fact mobilized many countries, even emerging economies to initiate national protection, reveals a recent publication of the IDWN, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and International Trade Union Confederation (see graphic). So why does India dither? A question regarding the national policy was raised in the Lok Sabha in August, but labour ministry officials merely said that a policy had been formulated, with no timeline on when it would be notified. “The Indian government is yet to see ending exploitation of domestic workers as a priority. Most government officials, journalists, and even labour activists employ domestic workers so it will require a huge transformation in social attitudes and political will to shift the relationship between having ‘household help’ to recognizing oneself as an employer with legal obligations in providing a safe and just workplace,” points out Nisha Varia, senior researcher at HRW. She explains that many employers hold paternalistic views about “helping” domestic workers by providing them a job or their kids’ education, without respecting minimum standards while doing so.
Most Indians still have a semi-feudal relationship with their domestic help. An egregious example of this is the not uncommon sight of young maids minding children at posh restaurants — standing at attention, often not offered even a glass of water — while their employers polish off an expensive meal.
The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, covers domestic workers but many provisions like maternity benefits and disability cover remain only on paper. There is no official count but the National Sample Survey Organisation 2004-05 survey puts the number of domestic workers at 4.75 million. Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have welfare boards but five years after their establishment they are still struggling to register domestic workers. Six states including Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Rajasthan notified domestic workers for minimum wages, which is Rs 115 per day or about Rs 3,000 per month. But activists say most domestic workers don’t know this and employers don’t tell them or implement it. Also, given that domestic workers aren’t registered nor do they have salary slips, there is no proof of employment that can be submitted along with a complaint before the labour commissioner.
The bais are dictating terms today, is a constant refrain in middle-class homes. But given the lack of basic legal protection, exploitation can be a routine affair, says Lata Kanore, 33, a domestic worker from Mumbai and member of Jagrut Ghar Kamgar Sanghatana. She narrates how a former employer in Khar would routinely question whether she stole garlic from the kitchen. “There were times the lady would check my belongings,” recalls Kanore, who quit due to the constant humiliation. Manali Shah of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) believes that in the absence of a national policy, many like Kanore have no identity as workers, and consequently no job security. “They will get a voice and validity only if they are given an identity,” she says.
Recent protection for domestic workers across the globe
Brazil: A constitutional amendment in March 2013 entitled 6.5m workers to a maximum 8-hour work day and 44-hour work week, overtime pay and unemployment insurance.
Philippines: Since Jan 2013, bans recruitment agencies from charging fees, assures workers contracts, minimum wages, social security benefits
United States: Around 2m home-care workers assured wages and overtime pay since Sept 2013
India: The law protects domestic workers against sexual harassment and entitles them to health insurance but fails to provide minimum wages, limited hours of work or official days off
Venezuela: Extended two weekly rest days, paid holidays and a minimum wage since 2012
Spain: Included workers in social security schemes, and extended minimum wage, weekly, annual and maternity leave since 2011 Countries that have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention include Bolivia, Germany, Guyana, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, South Africa and Uruguay
Countries that intend to ratify the Convention include Belgium, Benin, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica and Tanzania
Source: International Domestic Workers’ Network, International Trade Union Confederation & Human Rights Watch
With additional reporting by Rema Nagarajan