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Tentative bill seeks to save household staff from cruelty, exploitation

Minimum wages and maternity leave are some of the provisions made in India’s first-ever national policy on domestic workers drafted by the Ministry of Labour. If approved, it would bring relief to millions of servants working in appalling conditions, says Asiya Islam

Asiya Islam  3rd Jun 2012

Illustration by Enakshi Roy | Dev Kabir Malik Design

here's hardly an upper or middle class family in India that does not know the luxury of 'servants'. Perhaps one of the most persistent legacies of feudal India, the number of servants in an Indian house is directly proportional to the social stature of the family. It doesn't then come as a surprise that the official figure of India's domestic workers is pegged at 7 million while unofficial sources claim that there are around 90 million domestic workers in India. What does come as a surprise is that despite being in large numbers, these domestic workers are hardly recognised as workers. This is, however, set to change with India's first ever national policy on domestic workers.

The union cabinet has prepared a note based on a draft national policy on domestic work that was formulated and tabled by the Ministry of Labour in 2009. The policy proposes to amend existing laws such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Trade Union Act, the Payment of Wages Act, Workmen's Compensation Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act and the Equal Remuneration Act to bring domestic workers within their ambit. This would entitle domestic workers to minimum wage, annual leave, maternity leave, sick leave and overtime pay.

At the heart of the policy is the, what many would call formidable, intention to formalise the relationship between the 'master' and the 'servant' (to use terms that are archaic but that still, unfortunately, typify the relationship between employers and domestic workers in India). For centuries, domestic workers have been 'serving' the Indian upper and middle classes, mostly under very exploitative conditions but are not recognised as workers and hence, not entitled to workers' protections. The most obvious factor behind the invisibility of this labour is the absence of formal contracts.

Within the precincts of the home, domestic work is mostly hidden from the public gaze. This characterises domestic work with very low wages, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and extreme insecurity. The proposed policy is commendable for trying to penetrate the private or 'domestic' sphere. Anil Joy of National Domestic Workers' Movement (NDWM) says that until now domestic workers were at the receiving end, these proposed changes will ensure them their rights.

The dynamics of the discussion on the rights of domestic workers are heavily gendered with women comprising almost three-quarters of domestic workers. The feminisation of this labour makes domestic workers an even more vulnerable group. Women are not only disadvantaged in the imbalance of power in their relationship with their employer but also within their own home. A number of women's organisations have been working towards unionisation of domestic workers over the last few years now, including All Indian Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) and Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA).

The dynamics of the discussion on the rights of domestic workers are heavily gendered with women comprising almost three-quarters of domestic workers. This makes domestic workers an even more vulnerable group.

SEWA has observed that more and more illiterate and semi-illiterate, poor, self-employed women are turning to domestic work to earn their livelihood due to lack of formal jobs. Domestic work is assumed to require very little skill and is often seen as an extension of women's duties. It is, therefore, indeed a struggle to get it recognised as work of value.

AIDWA agrees with SEWA in that sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation is one of the major issues women domestic workers face at their workplace. And yet, as Sudha Sundar Raman, General Secretary of AIDWA, points out, since domestic workers are not recognised as workers, women's organisations have had to campaign and lobby in order to ensure inclusion of domestic workers in the Sexual Harassment bill.

uite interestingly, Anil Joy of NDWM said that there are quite a lot of transgender domestic workers in India as well and that addressing issues specific to transgender domestic workers is in the pipeline for NDWM.

Another section of domestic workers that can't be missed out is child domestic workers. Children provide extremely cheap labour and are often employed as live-in domestic workers without any wages at all. Even though child labour is illegal in India, it is not uncommon to come across Chotus or Munnas in many households in conditions even more vulnerable than adult domestic workers.

Dr Karen Wells, Birkbeck College, makes an important point: "It is mostly argued that children are being deprived of education by being employed in domestic work. However, it is often the case that children, especially teenagers, may see their income as a way to enable their schooling or further education." How the policy to give legal protection to domestic workers would come into conflict with this, needs to be given thought.

Another concern with formalising domestic work is that domestic workers could lose out on non-contractual benefits. For example, it is common practice to give clothes, food etc. to domestic workers on festivals. Of course, it needs to be weighed against what domestic workers lose out on by not being in a formal contractual relationship with their employers.

Indeed the biggest concern regarding this policy is its implementation. Though, in theory, the policy seems robust, in practice, it might be a failure unless there's a mind-shift. Prof Naila Kabeer, expert in development studies, believes that having such a law in place is a significant symbolic gesture. She cites the example of the successful domestic workers movements in Brazil and South Africa to argue that it's difficult but doable. It is very important, Prof Kabeer says, to put in place an effective social security system to ensure that domestic workers get their rights for it is a mentality that the policy is challenging and it's not the easiest of things to challenge.

What then are the alternatives available? A successful model that gives reassurance is an innovative domestic workers' agency in New Delhi called 'The Maids' Company'. Founded and run by Gauri Singh, the agency works as a social enterprise and focuses on domestic workers' rights.

The agency ensures a written contract between the domestic workers and the employer which entitles the workers to a decent wage, regulated work hours, maternity leave, sickness leave, and leave for childcare. The Maids' Company offers healthcare programmes and is planning to start a crèche with the revenue earned. The clients are incentivised by a more consistent and professional service.

Singh quips it has not been easy to convince employers to pay domestic workers higher wages. "Most households employ women as domestic workers and men as drivers or chauffeurs. While the driver is easily paid Rs.10-12,000/month, the maid earns less than a third of it. And yet, if you ask employers who they would prefer to let go on leave, they inevitably choose the driver because they see the maid as indispensible," explains Singh. This hits the nail on the head – domestic workers seem to be caught up in a very contradictory set of ideas due to the nature of their work, inevitably getting disadvantaged in almost every way possible.

The proposed policy is, therefore, very welcome. It will provide guidelines for how India should recognise this invisible work. At the more challenging level it remains to be seen how agreeable the Indian upper and middle classes, which have been historically benefitting from harsh exploitation of domestic workers, will be to treating their 'help' with dignity.

Asiya Islam is a freelance journalist and feminist blogger.

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