Domestic workers: indispensable but unprotected

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Many of India’s domestic workers face exploitation, poor working conditions and low wages, and campaigners say the one of the main reasons is the central government’s failure to introduce nationally applicable laws to protect them.

In February this year, a Gurgaon-based couple were charged with assaulting and torturing a 14-year-old girl who worked for them as a domestic help.

The girl was rescued after allegedly living through five months of barbaric torture and abuse at the hands of her employers. She was reportedly regularly beaten, burnt with hot metal tongs, slashed with blades, hit on her genitalia, kept in a state of near starvation, not allowed to speak to her relatives, and not paid a penny for the long hours of work that she was made to do.

For the alleged assault on the minor, a first information report (FIR) has been registered with the police under sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Juvenile Justice Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, meaning the process of the police investigating the alleged crime has begun.

Once the news was reported by the media, the husband and the wife, both educated professionals, were also fired from their respective places of work.

Photograph iStock credit Bhupi

Campaigners say that violence against domestic workers working in gated housing societies and other business establishments continues unabated in urban satellite cities like Noida, Gurugram and Delhi.

In 2015, two Nepalese employed as domestic workers for a Saudi diplomat were rescued from his Gurgaon flat. Investigations into the matter revealed that the two women had been repeatedly abused sexually by the diplomat and at least 20 others for months.

In 2018, a 15-year-old domestic worker Soni Kumari was murdered for demanding her unpaid wages. She had gone missing from her family home in Jharkhand and was working in Delhi. Until her murder, her family did not even know that she was in working and living in Delhi.

Working in private households

“Domestic work refers to housework such as sweeping, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, cooking, caring for children and such other work which is carried out for an employer for remuneration,” according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that aims to set to develop international labour standards and programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.

Domestic workers generally perform work in or for a private household or households. They may be employed by a single household or through or by a service provider; may be residing in the household of the employer (a live-in worker) or may be living in their own residence (live-out).

The ILO warns that, around the world, workers who work in isolation, where nobody is watching, are particularly vulnerable to violence and harassment at work. Domestic workers fit into this category of unseen and unmonitored employment and working conditions.

The ILO estimates there are around 75 million domestic workers worldwide, 76.2 per cent of whom are women. However, it warns that domestic workers rarely have access to rights and protections. Around 81 per cent are in informal employment, and they earn just 56 per cent of the average monthly wages of other employees.

The ILO adds that domestic workers face some of the most strenuous working conditions and are more likely than other workers to work either very long or very short hours. It also warns that domestic staff are particularly vulnerable to violence and harassment, and restrictions on their freedom of movement, and among this group, informal domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to problems like exploitation and poor working conditions.

Over four million domestic workers in India

Anti-Slavery International, a global campaigning and advocacy group, says estimates show there are over four million domestic workers in India. Many domestic workers are migrants from poorer states and are drawn from the most marginalised and socially discriminated populations in India, it says.

Most of them are Dalits or come from other disadvantaged castes and tribal minorities, and because many of them are landless, illiterate and innumerate, this increases their vulnerability and disempowerment. Their wages are, on average, only a third of those in other sectors, they have very limited social protections, it adds.

Campaigners in India say the country’s army of domestic workers frequently suffer violence and harassment, exploitation and coercion, ranging from verbal abuse to sexual violence, and sometimes even death. Domestic workers who live in the homes of their employers are especially vulnerable, they say.

Although various types of domestic staff are employed in households, there are two main types of domestic helps in India: the live-out or part-time domestic worker and the live-in worker. The pandemic adversely affected both of these types of worker, and led both to a general reduction, or loss, of income due to workers’ wages being renegotiated downwards by their employer and employers unilaterally imposing difficult working conditions.

The demand for increased cleanliness and sanitation in the home during the pandemic also increased the work burden on domestic workers, said Neha Wadhawan, national project coordinator for the ILO’s programme, ‘Work in Freedom – Making migrant work safer for women from South Asia’.

Gaps in the law

Social activists who provide rehabilitation services to domestic helps and other experts say there are various gaps in India’s labour and social security laws, protections and schemes that leave domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation, poor working conditions, abuse and slavery.

Anushree Jairath, programme coordinator for the Gender Justice Team at Oxfam India, said domestic workers are ‘invisible’ in society and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation, harassment, forced labour and gender-based violence.

“Social norms around care work being the responsibility of women and not seeing it as ‘work’ further undervalues domestic workers,” she said. “This results in below minimum wages and exploitative working conditions.”

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), India has around four million domestic workers and nearly two-thirds of them are women.

Ruth Manorama, a social activist, said it is common for children from tribal areas to be picked up by wealthy households when they are as young as seven or eight years old and made to work as house helps for many years. During this time, they are often abused and harassed.

“Women and children who are staying and working (in a house) are very poorly treated and there is no law really covering them,” Manorama said.

“A separate law covering the entire gamut of provisions must be brought in to protect domestic workers,” she added.

Migrating in search of domestic work

Neetha N, a professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, says that a large number of women (especially unmarried girls) migrate from the tribal pockets of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal to cities, such as Delhi NCR, in search of domestic work.

“These women migrants depend on agents/mediators as they are strangers to the city, often illiterate, and have limited knowledge of the local language,” she adds.

“There has also been a growth in placement agencies/housekeeping companies for domestic work over the years. There have also been many attempts to regulate such agencies in the past. Though the terms ‘placement agencies’ and ‘housekeeping companies’ suggest a somewhat formalised system, these are mostly informal, without uniform patterns in their functioning,” she added. 

Domestic work in India, both paid and unpaid, tends to be viewed as women’s work and is undervalued. There is also an assumption that it is almost natural for women to have the skills to perform these duties.

“This is also linked to why domestic workers receive such low wages,” says Neha Wadhawan from the ILO. “Historically, male workers involved in such domestic work have moved on to other jobs when opportunities arose because it is low paying and due to the perception of domestic work as primarily women’s work.”

No clear legislation

Experts also point out that currently, there is no clear legislation that directly regulates and covers the rights of domestic workers in India. There are only two laws that slightly mention domestic workers.

These are the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, (UWSSA), which is a social welfare scheme; and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 201, which aims to protect working women in general from sexual harassment at their place of work. In 2008, the National Commission For Women proposed a draft bill to govern conditions of work for domestic workers and remains under review and discussion, according to the ILO.

The central Ministry of Labour and Employment is considering formulating a National Policy on Domestic Workers, but according to the government’s latest announcements, it is in the draft stage.

Piecemeal approach to protecting domestic workers in India

Meanwhile, a report published in December 2021 by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) states that while the pandemic demonstrated how vital domestic and care work is to society, it also highlighted how domestic workers across several of the 54 Commonwealth countries lack access to adequate social protections.

In particular, the CHRI says Indian’s central (i.e. federal) government has given “limited federal attention” to ensuring the rights of domestic workers at a nationally applicable level, and as a result, “developments are piecemeal and dependent on state priorities”.

It says: “The de-federalised structure of India’s worker protections is one of the largest challenges to domestic workers’ rights in the country, as it can lead to inequalities for domestic workers across state lines. For instance, of 28 states and union territories in India, only 13 have enacted minimum wages for domestic workers.

The CHRI adds that, although states are required under the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 to establish local boards for domestic workers to register for social benefits, “due to lack of oversight, access to benefits often differs between states, and only some states have set up welfare boards for unorganised workers”.

The report also warns that the different labour laws among states can pose a problem for workers migrating from rural to urban areas for work, including as domestic helps. For instance, migrant domestic workers are unable to access their benefits outside of their state of origin. Also, although the Child Labour Amendment Act, 2016 introduced a ban on children aged 14 to 18 years old from engaging in ‘hazardous work’, this definition currently does not include domestic work.

The report notes that the central government has made some progress in introducing laws and policies to provide better employment protections for domestic workers.

For instance, domestic workers are covered by The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, which prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. However, CHRI says that the Act’s requirement that complaints from domestic workers about sexual harassment by their employer must be referred to the police, potentially creates a barrier to individuals voicing their complaints.

“Research shows that the requirement to lodge a complaint with the police can deter the engagement of domestic workers, due to fear of reprisals or existing mistrust of authorities, especially among migrant female workers,” says the report.

CHRI adds that the new e-Shram electronic portal, which encourages workers in the unorganised sector to register on a national database so they can access relevant social security benefits, has seen registrations from nearly six million domestic and household workers, up to November 2021. However, it warns that “the supposed benefits of registration are yet to be seen”.  

The report adds that although the central government is attempting to streamline the country’s labour laws through the introduction of four new labour codes, “provisions relating specifically to domestic workers were overlooked, once again highlighting their invisibility among federal policy makers”.

For instance, the Code on Wages, which aims to guarantee minimum wages for workers in both the organised and unorganised sectors, will not apply to domestic workers who work for an employer who employs less than five people.

Call for India to ratify the ILO Convention on domestic workers

The CHRI therefore calls on India to immediately ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (C189), which aims to promote decent work for domestic workers. The Convention requires countries to take various legal, policy and enforcement measures to ensure the rights and protections of domestic workers, such as protecting domestic workers from all forms of abuse, harassment and violence and ensuring fair terms of employment, decent working conditions, and if applicable, decent living conditions for domestic workers.

In particular, the CHRI says the Indian government should review the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 to improve the available complaint mechanisms for domestic workers. It also calls for recruitment processes to be regulated to ensure safer rural to urban migration for domestic workers – for example, by prohibiting recruitment agents from charging domestic workers ‘recruitment fees’ for placing them in work and banning agents from deducting job placement fees from workers’ salaries.

“Currently, domestic workers are at the mercy of the protections afforded by individual states, and it appears these are neither consistent nor uniformly implemented, and in some cases, non-existent. In a sector beset with migration and movement across state borders, leaving the regulation of domestic work to states is simply impractical,” says the CHRI.

“Federal [nationally applicable] action is needed – and this can start with the ratification and implementation of C189.”

The CHRI report can be found here.


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