Domestic workers are not servants, they have a right to fair wages and working conditions…

This Deepavali, will the woman who cleans your house and cooks for you be able to celebrate the festival with her family, or will she be cooking and washing dishes as you celebrate with your family and friends? Rarely does this question cross the minds of the majority of people who employ domestic help. Yet, the 3,000 domestic workers who gathered for a public hearing in Jaipur last month reminded us about precisely this reality: “We run two homes, yours and ours”, they said. “Can any of you in society do without our labour?” How easily we forget that these women also have their own homes to run even as they manage ours.

The women who gathered in Jaipur also demanded that they be recognised as workers. “We are not ‘naukranis', we are workers in a free India,” they asserted. Yet, the majority of the people who employ them rarely think of them as ‘workers'. As a result, there is no accepted standard of what they should be paid, how that payment should be calculated — per day, per hour, per month or according to the number of tasks performed. The rate at which they are paid depends on the demand and supply of domestic workers. In big cities like Mumbai, for instance, where demand often outstrips supply, these women — and the majority are women and girls — can negotiate a higher wage. In places where there is a surplus, they are forced to settle for next to nothing. For, if they demand more, there are always others willing to work for less.

Nebulous

The rights of domestic workers can no longer be ignored. For many poor women who have to manage their own households, part-time work in several households is the ideal way to earn money. The skills they use in their homes are precisely the skills required in their jobs. Yet, because this is paid labour, it ought to come with a clear set of rights that the employer recognises and respects. Nothing of this kind happens.

“She is like a member of the family”, some say about their domestic help. Yet the woman will not be allowed to use the toilet the family uses, sometimes not even to drink or eat out of the same utensils that everyone uses. And there is no question of time off, either during the day or one day in a week. So how can she be a “member of the family”?

Across the world, the issue of domestic workers, their rights, their wages has been a raging controversy. It has been particularly acute in the case of migrant workers engaged as domestic help in some countries. The most notorious cases of abuse, including sexual abuse, have emerged from Saudi Arabia. In June this year, an Indonesian maid was beheaded in Saudi Arabia after she was convicted for having killed her employer. The reason she was driven to do this was a history of abuse and torture. What she experienced is not the exception; testimonies from scores of domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka who work in Saudi Arabia indicate just how widespread is such treatment. Graphically documented in a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch titled, “As if I am not human: Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia”, this is grim reading as dozens of women speak of being repeatedly raped, tortured, abused and forcibly confined so that they cannot escape and report the abuse. These stories have seen the light of day because a few did manage to escape. Tragically, even those that did escape did not find a happy ending. Their tormentors, their former employers, often got away under Saudi law while the women were left with no money to show for the years they had worked and had to face deportation.

Initial steps

These stories and the campaigns by those concerned about migrant domestic workers, particularly in the Gulf countries, finally prompted the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to pass a Convention Covering Decent Work for Domestic Workers in May this year. All countries, barring Swaziland, endorsed the Convention. It will become operational only once the parliaments of the individual countries ratify it.

The Convention sets out steps to protect the human rights of domestic workers, allow them freedom of association, eliminate forced or compulsory employment, abolish child labour, protect them against all forms of abuse and violence and provide decent working conditions. It also touches on the way remuneration is calculated — by the tasks done or the number of hours worked, their right to annual paid leave, weekly offs, daily rest periods and terms and conditions regarding termination of employment. In other words, a structure similar to that of workers employed in the formal sector where these things are stated and not assumed. A director of the ILO, Manuela Tomei stated that the new standards established by this Convention, “make clear that domestic workers are neither servants, nor ‘members of the family' but workers. And after today they can no longer be considered second-class workers.”

The problem in India is that domestics are not even considered ‘ workers', leave alone ‘second-class workers'. This is the crux of the problem. Until we acknowledge that however informal the arrangement, this is also work, we will continue to exploit the crucial service provided by the 50 lakhs and more domestic workers in India. In some states, notably Tamil Nadu, the first steps towards fixing a minimum hourly wage is being discussed. In countries around the world, where domestic workers are engaged, the payment is worked out on an hourly basis. As a result, whether a worker finds employment directly, or through an agency, she is guaranteed a set wage.

Uphill task

Although there are many efforts being made to organise domestic workers, particularly in some of the bigger cities, it is an uphill task because of the nature of the work, and the constant flow of people willing to work. Yet, just as the ILO has intervened on the international level, surely the government in India has to take some steps. If there is any genuine concern in government circles, it is not entirely evident. A law drafted in 2008 on domestic workers has not seen the light of day. Worse still, domestic workers have been excluded from the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010, an area where there is urgent need for intervention. And even though the government has extended the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana to provide health insurance to ‘ registered' domestic workers between the ages of 18-59, there is no clarity on how this will be implemented if the majority of these workers remain unregistered.

The lights that will shine in many homes this Deepavali must now shine on these dark corners of our homes, where unfair practices and exploitative wages are allowed to continue.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com