The state of domestic workers in India
Gauri, aged 35, works as a domestic help in four households in an upmarket locality in Delhi. Her day begins at 4 am, in time to cook, clean, get her children ready for school and fetch water for her family. Then she takes an hour-long bus journey to reach her first place of work by 8am, just in time to serve her employers breakfast and pack their lunch before they leave for work an hour later. She cleans their home, washes their clothes and makes sure dinner is made before leaving at around 12 noon. Then Gauri goes to her next employer’s home in the neighboring apartment. Here she washes utensils and sweeps and swabs the floors. This takes her a little less than an hour. Gauri then makes her way to her third employer’s home where she cooks lunch and dinner and takes care of the overall cleaning and washing in the house. Between 4–5 pm she has nowhere to go. She sits on a park bench or sometimes at the bus stop, eating her packed lunch, till her fourth employer returns from work. It’s time for another cleaning and dusting job, and ends with her massaging the employer’s baby. Gauri finally sets out for home at 7 pm.
In a single day, Gauri cooks, cleans and cares for various homes but all at a different cost, depending on the employer. She often ends up tending to the other children in families, cooking an extra dish, ironing clothes — none of which she is paid extra for.
She doesn’t mind, her employers are kind to her. She does not have a weekly off.
The Invisible Workforce
Gauri’s story is one shared by millions of women across India. As per the NSSO (2004–05) it is estimated that India has at least 4.2 million domestic workers, largely women, minors and migrants who belong to the lowest end of the economic spectrum. Hired domestic workers ease the burden of individual households by undertaking chores in return for remuneration. Their tasks include the care of children and the elderly, cooking, driving, cleaning, grocery shopping, running errands and taking care of household pets, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas. However, despite the many benefits their work brings to individuals households, domestic workers are not recognised as an independent workforce. They continue to remain the invisible labour helping millions of households run and making it possible for others to enjoy comfortable lives.
Gauri is classified as a part time worker. She was a live-in worker for two years before she was married, where she lived with a family and took care of their every need. She is skilled, but is paid as an unskilled worker. She is called didi (elder sister) by her employers, but is referred to as a ‘kaamwali’ (female worker in Hindi) or ‘servant’ in conversation.
Defining Domestic Work
According to the International Labour Organisation, in India domestic work is an important avenue of work, one that is able to absorb unskilled and lesser educated women while making an important contribution to the country’s economic growth. Yet, domestic workers’ arduous work is not covered by labour laws at the national level; caste-based practices view them as ‘servants’ rather than household employees with labour rights.
Policy documents on domestic workers in India provide a common definition of a domestic worker as a person who is employed for remuneration, in any household through any agency or directly, either on a temporary or permanent basis, part-time or full-time to do the household work, but does not include any member of the family of an employer. These definitions however are limited, as there is a range of work that is not traditionally seen as domestic work, but is limited to the domestic sphere. These include care givers, security guards, gardeners, elevator attendants, to name a few.
The ILO on Domestic Work
In 2011, an overwhelming majority of 185 member states of the ILO — governments, trade unions and employer’s organisations — voted in favour of adopting Domestic Workers Convention (№189). The convention recognises special conditions under which domestic work is carried out, recalling adoption of certain other relevant international instruments such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants, International Conventions, etc. to consider the proposal of decent work for domestic workers. The most important section in the Convention is Article 3 which states that member states should take measures to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all domestic workers and promote as well as realise fundamental principles and rights at work.
This convention was historic as it was the first international labour standard to lay down minimum labour protection for domestic workers. It aims to promote decent work for domestic workers to ensure that their labour rights are upheld, address their vulnerabilities (especially of migrant workers) and makes no excuse for child labour in the domestic sphere. India was among the countries which voted in favour of the Convention, paving the way for new policy instruments to emerge.
The Legal Status of Domestic Workers in India
Much before the ILO convention, various unions and groups in India had been working towards formalising domestic work. Currently, 13 Indian states have listed Domestic Workers as a employment category scheduled under the Minimum Wage Act. Domestic workers, however, have the lowest minimum wages. An exception being Kerala where domestic workers have different wages for different types of work. Maharashtra on the other hand has a Domestic Workers Welfare Board Act.
At the national level, since 1996, various draft policies for domestic work have been deliberated and formulated by various groups. Most recently, the National Platform for Domestic Workers submitted a draft bill, the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill, 2016. This bill has been tabled in the Parliament and reflects the spirit of Convention 189, ensuring the rights and fundamental principles for domestic work.
The Need of the Hour — Social Security and Legal Protection
While several legislations such as the Unorganized Social Security Act, 2008; Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and Minimum Wages Schedules notified in various states refer to domestic workers, there remains an absence of comprehensive, uniformly applicable, national legislation that guarantees fair terms of employment and decent working conditions (United Nations in India). The need of the hour is legal recognition and social security for domestic workers across the country.
The Domestic Workers (Regulation of Work and Social Security) Bill, 2017 tabled in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and then the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of the Indian Parliament includes, among other provisions:
i. registration of domestic workers, service providers (placement agencies, voluntary organisations) and employers — placing equal onus of registration on both the worker and employer
ii. establishment of a domestic workers social security fund, which will be sustained through various contributions, some of which include — an annual contribution to be made by domestic workers and 1% of monthly house tax collected by the local body
iii. establishment of required structures for enforcement of the law at the central, state and district level
iv. regulation of working conditions (minimum wages, leaves, access to social security, protection from abuse, harassment, violence and exploitation)
v. access to courts, tribunals for grievance redressal
In both the winter session (2017) and budget session (2018) of the Parliament, questions were raised in both Houses on the government’s intention to pass this national policy to ensure social security of domestic workers. The Ministry of Labour and Employment responded that the draft is under consideration and it is yet to initiate action to execute this draft policy to secure decent work and social security for domestic workers in India.
The real challenge also lies in convincing policy makers to make the political choice to specifically address the heterogeneity in the informal sector. The process of formalisation needs to be gradual, incremental and participatory. Formalisation should mean strengthening domestic workers’ trade unions, social security, regulation of their wages, decent work and elimination of exploitation so that domestic workers in the informal economy can exercise their complete labour rights. At the same time, formalisation should NOT mean costly registration, unilateral decision making by the authorities, discrimination against women and abuse of child labour.
We need to embrace formalisation of domestic work in the informal economy; rights awareness for both the employer and domestic worker is critical to this process.
Ask Gauri what she feels about her work and she says, ‘I do all of this work at home too — without pay’ and laughs.
Questions on the feminisation of domestic work and paid housework remain.
Brishti Banerjee, Project Associate, & Marina Joseph, Programme Coordinator