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.