A recent surge in cases of domestic workers being abused has gripped the nation and suggests growing concern among international groups for the plight of domestic workers. The most recent being the arrest of Bahujan Samaj Party MP Dhananjay Singh and his wife Jagriti in connection with the death of their domestic help at his official residence. The domestic help was allegedly kicked, burned with a hot iron and hit with sharp objects, including antelope horns.
Disturbing incidents like this show a gaping hole in the legal machinery to safeguard the health and regulate working conditions of domestic workers.
Asia houses roughly 40% of the global domestic work force and a high number of them are from India. Many women have resorted to a career in domestic household work due to reasons ranging from poverty, no source of income to illiteracy and inability to find other jobs. Despite a large number of people employed in domestic work, the government has strangely not taken many efforts to provide at least basic protective framework for them.
Some of the most fundamental reasons why we need an inclusive legislation for people employed in this sector are encapsulated below:
- Domestic workers fall under the unorganized sector, are not recognized as “workers” and are therefore outside the ambit of various beneficial legislations such as the Labour and Industrial Laws designed to protect the interests of a worker and ameliorate their status. Domestic workers being largely illiterate are not able to form unions and negotiate for basic needs such as minimum wages. There are workers who are employed for as less as INR 50 per day. Their “unorganized” status is proving to be disadvantageous and this needs to be changed soon.
- Domestic workers from India who have very low levels of literacy and no means of earning a livelihood have often been duped by so called agents who send them to gulf countries under the pretext of giving them a job as domestic servants. But once they got there, they had to face issues such as unpaid wages, restrictions on leaving the households where they work, and excessive work hours with no rest days. Some have even been forced into sex trafficking and physical abuse at the hands of the employers. With no law regulating the domestic workers, it has been tough to provide them with adequate protection.
- Various international organizations like the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Human Rights Watch apart from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have taken active interest in solving the problems of domestic workers. Since the 2011 adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention, research has shown more than 25 countries have improved protective legislations for domestic workers. In Asia however, the Philippines is the only country to have ratified the Domestic Workers Convention and has adopted comprehensive legislation protecting domestic workers in January 2013. Recently there has been pressure on India to ratify this ILO treaty.
- Even though India has introduced two significant policy changes, which include the extension of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), i.e. the national health insurance scheme, to domestic workers in May 2012 and bringing domestic workers under a new law prohibiting sexual harassment at workplace this year, it is yet to take active measures in providing the most fundamental needs like minimum wages, regulated working hours, maternity benefits and weekly offs.
Key Government Initiatives
The most recent legislation for domestic workers titled Domestic workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Act, 2008  seeks to protect domestic workers by constituting supervisory boards at the central, state and district levels to monitor the use of the “domestic workers’ welfare fund”, the registration of domestic workers, provides for regulations of working conditions and lists down various offences and penalties related to exploitation of domestic workers.
Recently, an amendment to the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention and Prohibition) Act, 2013 has included domestic workers in its provisions. Also, various states have taken the initiative to protect domestic workers by including them under the legislation for minimum wages, the most recent being Maharashtra.
But the ground reality and statistics tell a different story. These legislations and initiatives have not been successful to a great extent in giving domestic workers a sense of security. The number of cases reported of abuse and torture of domestic help in India and Indians in gulf countries has been shocking and has raised a serious concern for the future of domestic workers and their personal and financial security.
The organized efforts of workers’ organizations and action groups in various parts of the country have been indispensable in spreading awareness of the plight of domestic workers. The question now remains, how long till the government finally passes a comprehensive legislation to protect domestic workers?
About the Author
A patriot and hopeful change maker, Riddhima is a believer in the power of women to change the world. She has studied Political Science with special reference to the feminist movement, feminist theory and the position of women in Indian politics. She is currently pursuing Law and hopes to specialize in women related laws and work with an organization in a related field. She enjoys public speaking and is not afraid to speak her mind. Sharma is a quick learner and is keen to gain new experiences especially in the areas of public policy, politics and strategy.