Calls for effective legislation on domestic workers have fallen on deaf ears
They are ‘the help’ many cannot do without. They clean our houses, cook for us, wash our clothes and utensils, and bring semblance to what would be otherwise an untidy space. Their daily presence allows us to go along with our lives with relative comfort. However, domestic workers still remain in the purview of an extremely myopic sight. And given that this type of work is overwhelmingly branded as female labour, it presents itself as an area where diverse problems come into existence, with patriarchy being the norm.
Apart from being a gendered issue, domestic work remains deeply rooted in bias; a profession that garners disrespect, emotional and physical abuse. And they negotiate these issues in the space of home, their workplace, which can be neither termed as a public space nor a private establishment. “We have to rethink the idea of workspace radically. In this age, the definition of a workspace has garnered different connotations and meanings,” says Sonal Sharma, a Delhi-based independent researcher, who has done a study on women domestic workers. In his study, Voices of Female Domestic Workers: Negotiating Vulnerabilities in ‘Home as a Workspace’, based on interactions with domestic workers in select localities of Delhi, Sonal explores their perception and practices and how they negotiate access to certain basic amenities and cope with the fear arising out of the nature of their site of work.
From being put through ‘loyalty tests’ by their employers to being provided with separate toilets or utensils, Sonal presents an insight into how women workers belonging to different castes and religions adjust with these issues to earn their livelihood amid a complex web of condescending stereotypes. “Domestic workers are usually stereotyped as thieves; their identity is set. And some of them seem to passively accept their situations while others try to resist it or negotiate within their own constraints,” says Sonal. He recently presented his study at a gathering organised by Saheli, a wome’s group in New Delhi.
Surveys and studies on the subject indicate that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women engaged in domestic service. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 53 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide. Nonetheless they remain unrecognised, undervalued, and poorly regulated, particularly in developing economies like India. While there have been voices of concern, protest and even calls for effective legislation to deal with these issues, those calls have usually fallen on deaf ears. Sample this: the Government of India is yet to ratify the ILO Convention on Domestic Work, which was passed by the International Labour Congress in 2010. The Convention outlines “that domestic workers around the world who care for families and households, must have the same basic labour rights as those available to other workers: reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payment, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.”
On July 31, more than 2,000 domestic workers will gather in the Capital’s Jantar Mantar to submit a petition titled ‘Enactment of Comprehensive Legislation for Domestic Workers’ to Parliament, seeking a legislation focusing on the welfare of domestic workers. “The situation of domestic workers in India is extremely bad. They are not entitled to any provident fund or gratuity and this is a situation similar for all unorganised sectors. So, we thought we will start with domestic workers and take it further. We are demanding for a comprehensive law that would help these workers in the long run,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirmala Niketan. Workers and activists are demanding a legislation that comprehensively deals with areas like working conditions and lack of social protection; the demands include a tripartite board that would serve as the instrument for implementation of the said act, and would undertake registration of workers and their social security contributions, regulation of conditions of work, social protection, registration of employers and collection of their contribution for social security, and monitoring of payment of minimum wages.
The proposal includes setting up of a help line in the Board and also a complaints committee at all levels to handle sexual harassment complaints of domestic workers. The responsibility of registering placement agencies would also rest with the Board. Demands also include smart cards for domestic workers that facilitate social security protection and retirement benefits all over the country.