Social media has highlighted sexual harassment in offices, but there’s little recourse for those who work in homes

New Delhi:

It’s been over 10 years but Nisha (name changed) still remembers the discomfort of the gaze of her employer’s ageing father as she went about doing household chores. She called him ‘dadaji’ (grandfather) but that did not deter him from trying to hold her hand. He would wander into her room, and use his age as an excuse to seek assistance from the young domestic worker.

Nisha was then in her early 20s. She now knows that was workplace sexual harassment, but the knowledge alone does not help lakhs of women like her in the unorganised sector who are unable to take action.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 provides for local complaints committees at the district level for workers from the unorganised sector. Domestic workers neither know of this provision nor how to reach authorities. Their biggest fear is counter allegations of theft which results in loss of livelihood.

As the #MeToo movement brings the issue of workplace safety to the fore, the rights of the lakhs of women, most of them migrants from rural India’s poverty-stricken regions who work in urban homes as domestic workers, have also come into focus.

Anita Yadav, founder of Mahila Kamgar Sangathan in Gurgaon, says most domestic workers do not talk about harassment but only report assault, rape and forced labour. The organisation, which has around 7,000 domestic workers as members, has recently started work on awareness building about sexual harassment.

Nisha, who is now part of this awareness drive with domestic workers, says she was 20 when she came to Delhi from a village in Jharkhand’s Gumla district in 2003. A placement agency got her the job. “I didn’t like the grandfather’s behaviour, but did not know it was sexual harassment,” she says. When the man began entering her room, Nisha went to his daughter-in-law. “I had the courage to complain only because I knew she did not like him,” she says.

A 2012 poll by Oxfam India found that the women most vulnerable to workplace harassment are labourers (29%), domestic workers (23%), and small-scale manufacturing unit workers (16%).

Sanjay Kumar, India director of Harvard’s Mittal Institute, says there is a need to create deterrence at the community level. “Residents’ welfare associations can start by creating committees for domestic workers to report cases. These can be linked to district authorities where the local complaints committees must be set up,” he says.

Ravi Kant, president of voluntary organisation Shakti Vahini, says enforcing the law for the unorganised sector has been dismal. “We will ask the government to create awareness through advertisements,” he says. “Regulating placement agencies is critical to defining the employer-employee relationship,” he says.

SILENT LABOUR: While domestic workers report assault and forced labour, they rarely talk about sexual harassment