The horrific case of the young girl tortured by her employer in Delhi forces us to ask why there is no law to protect the rights of the people who work in our homes.

Household work has never been considered work in India. It has always been the ‘duty’ of the woman: wife, mother, daughter or sister to do the chores and expect no pay. Any wonder then that the domestic worker is so blatantly underpaid. Cooking, cleaning, caring for children, these are all skilled jobs but they fall under the unorganised sector, with no law to protect rights, no health cover and no pension. The absence of a targeted law for domestic workers also means that in the case of abuse or exploitation, they have no recourse to justice.

Some laws can be invoked for specific instances, such as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and the Juvenile Justice Act. But that’s it. A National Policy on Domestic Workers has been formulated by the Labour Ministry but is yet to be notified. Karnataka and Kerala have notified minimum wages for domestic labour while Tamil Nadu includes domestic workers in the Manual Workers Act. Some attempts were made to extend the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana to domestic workers but they have fallen short of implementation.

In 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention. India supports the Convention but is yet to ratify it. One big reason for the absence of a targeted law, say activists, is that the law-makers — the babus in Delhi and elsewhere — are themselves employers and a law protecting the rights of domestic workers could be antagonistic to their interests.

Belonging to the unorganised sector means that in case of a dispute with the employer, the worker cannot go to a labour court, as she is not technically recognised as a ‘worker’. “All laws since Independence are formulated for the organised sector, which is hardly 5 per cent in this country,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirmala Niketan, which organises domestic workers.

The National Platform for Domestic Workers, which includes 20 organisations from 15 states, recently submitted a petition demanding comprehensive legislation. They proposed an autonomous statutory body or Tripartite Board, with compulsory registration of employer, employee and agency. “A full-time worker is more vulnerable to abuse behind closed doors. The responsibility must be pinned on the employer as well who can give one month’s salary annually to the Board. The Board can, in turn, take care of the workers’ quarterly health check-up, shelter, maternity and accident costs, pension and other benefits,” says Bhatnagar. The details of a person checking into a hotel room for one day are sent to the police, so where is the problem in registering domestic workers, he asks.

Renuka Ramanujam, Researcher, Department of Women’s Studies, Indian Social Institute, is equally emphatic. “Even if there is a contract, it’s not legally enforceable unless there is a law,” she says. Around 90 per cent of these women are Dalit and Adivasi migrants from Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam, who leave homes in search of livelihood. Father Sunny Bhai of Jesuits in Social Action points to the numbing poverty forcing the migration. “In Assam, the tea gardens are shutting down. In Chhattisgarh, the Adivasis have lost their land. These people have to choose between travelling to Delhi and dying of starvation.” Although placement agencies lure the families with the promise of high wages, the truth is they are paid well below the minimum even in the capital.

Adivas Jeevan Vikas Sanstha has 70 workers who it places via contract in homes. The 11-month contract works on goodwill and negotiation, and specifies a salary of Rs. 5,000 a month. Despite this, there are instances of ill treatment. “In the first 15 days of trial, they treat us very well, but after that the oppression begins,” says Pushpa, once a domestic worker and now with the Sanstha. “They specify tasks initially, but later make us do everything. Sometimes, there is no proper place to sleep. They never let us eat the food we cook for them. We are made to eat stale food from different plates,” says Pushpa. Untouchability in a different avatar. “There is a mindset that these are Dalits and Adivasis; how can they sit on the sofa or eat the same food,” says Father Bhai. Sister Sophia, who also works with domestic workers, talks of girls who have been asked to give the owner a massage, and later been forced to extend sexual favours. The worker is too scared to report the matter; or fears she will be incriminated or shamed, and bears it silently.

Young girls, mothers, widows — the women come in droves, looking for work. The government must create infrastructure for them and their children. They must be trained and their interests protected. But little can happen unless there is first a law that recognises them and their rights.

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