It’s not help, it’s work

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We need a legislation to regulate domestic work

Employing a help in house? Only after verification,” says the ad’s headline. Below, in capital letters, appears a warning: “An unverified domestic help can pose a serious security risk.” And then a call to action: “Contact your beat constable or local police station for domestic help verification.”

The copy is set against a visual of a cop taking a picture of a young girl, presumably the domestic help, while an elderly woman, her employer, looks on. The girl picked to represent the ‘domestic help’ has the features of an adivasi, is slightly built, and dark-complexioned. She is shown standing, in one corner of the frame, while the cop and her employer are seated.

Readers of English newspapers would be familiar with this ad campaign, urging them to get their domestic helps verified by the police. Of late, these ads have become a matter of great concern for unions, domestic workers, and social activists, who say the campaign reeks of class prejudice.

But what they find most objectionable is the criminalisation of people on the basis of their occupation. Copies of so-called police verification forms are doing the rounds of housing societies across Delhi. Domestic workers are being made to fill up the form and submit them to the nearest police station.

The data sought by the form includes, among other things, the domestic help’s “petwords of speech”, “physical built”, “complexion” and “handwriting specimen”, besides descriptions of eyes, hair, tattoo marks, and prints of all the fingers of both hands. No such information is sought about the employer, despite there being ample evidence to suggest that the security threat works the other way too.

Indeed, hardly a week goes by without some news report about a domestic help being abused by her employer. Cases of torture, beatings, sexual assault, and incarceration are common. If anything, one could argue that in this sector, it is the employer who poses a bigger security threat — to the employee.

Lack of recognition

For the record, no other category of workers is required to register themselves with the police. 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. Their work — cooking, cleaning, dish-washing, baby-sitting — is not recognised as work by the state. Criminalisation is thus the last straw.

India has only two laws that, in a roundabout way, construe domestic helps as workers. The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, (UWSSA) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. While the former is a social welfare scheme, the latter is aims to protect working women in general. Neither of these recognises domestic helps as rights-bearing workers.

Yet this recognition is a necessary pre-condition for state regulation. Strangely enough, it exists — in the form of a draft National Policy for Domestic Workers. This policy not only calls for promoting awareness of domestic work as a “legitimate labour market activity”, but also recommends amending existing labour laws to ensure that domestic workers enjoy all the labour rights that other workers do. But the government seems to be in no hurry to adopt it.

Domestic work as an economic activity is too vast and employs too many to remain unregulated. Though the 2011 NSSO data put the number of domestic workers at 3.9 million, trade unions estimate the number to be around 10 million. Most of these are from vulnerable communities – Adivasis, Dalits or landless OBCs. Nearly all of them are migrant workers. And an overwhelming number are women.

The apparently endless supply of domestic workers has a lot to do with the decline of employment opportunities in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, which took a hit post-2008. At the same time, demand kept rising, as the entry of middle class and upper middle class women into the male-dominated world of work was not matched in scale by a corresponding entry of men into the (feminised) realm of unpaid housework.

Poorer women from the hinterlands stepped in to fill the labour gap, for some remuneration. Today, the economic value of housework is no longer disputed. But the nexus of the state and the market has managed to keep domestic work outside the realm of economic regulation. Neither the Maternity Benefits Act nor the Minimum Wages Act or any of the scores of other labour laws apply to domestic work. Domestic workers can be hired and fired at will. The employer has no legally binding obligations.

A regulatory framework

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 recognises the private household as a workplace. Besides, we already have a draft legislation that presents a model for regulating domestic work without inviting the state into the living room, as it were.

The National Platform for Domestic Workers submitted a draft bill, the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill, 2016, to the government in January. Going beyond state-centric welfare measures, it calls for the compulsory registration of the employer and the employee with the District Board for regulation of domestic workers. Unlike the UWSSA, which puts the onus on the state, it mandates the collection of cess from the employer for the maintenance of a social security fund for domestic workers, whose access would be mediated through an identity card.

This framework achieves both the objectives of police verification — security, and documentation of identification data. But in a refreshing contrast, it does so not by criminalising domestic helps but by empowering them as rights-bearing workers.

Thus, to view domestic workers as a security threat is but another way of denying them the status of workers. The policy mindset regarding domestic workers must shift from a law-and-order paradigm to one about workers’ rights. A good place to start would be to consider enacting a Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security