The issue of violence perpetrated on domestic workers, largely women, remains mostly invisible and unaddressed.
The many conversations on violence against women that began on December 16 remain incomplete. We discuss the visible. We rarely mention the invisible or less visible, the violence inside closed doors, in private spaces, away from the public sphere. By this I don’t just mean the violence by family members. That is, in any case, shrouded in several impenetrable layers of silence. Apart from this, there is another form of violence, one that is largely accepted. Often the perpetrators of the violence can be women, even those who have themselves been at the receiving end of domestic violence.
This is the insidious form of violence that millions of domestic workers suffer each day in the homes where they work. It consists not just of physical or sexual attacks but of a lack of dignity, of lack of basic rights and of the absence of recognition that they deserve a fair wage for the work they do. We need to condemn and combat this hidden violence as much as we have now begun to talk about the violence on our streets.
This column has repeatedly taken up the cause of domestic workers because it is one of those under-the-radar issues that is somehow not addressed. The majority of domestic workers worldwide are women. In India, the official data puts their numbers at just seven million when it is evident that the actual number is many times more, closer to 90 million. And this figure does not take into account the children who are illegally employed for domestic work.
Worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an estimated 53 million people are employed in people’s homes. Over 80 per cent are women. Admittedly, this too is an underestimation. A new ILO report points out that, despite international attention being paid to the issue, little is being done. In 2011, after many years of campaigning by organisations that represented domestic workers, the ILO passed the Domestic Workers Convention (No 189). Yet two years later, the Convention has still not come into force because only a handful of governments — the Philippines, Uruguay and Mauritius — have ratified it. The Philippines has gone a step further by promulgating its own law on domestic workers giving them the same rights as other workers. Not so most other countries, including India, which is among the list of countries yet to ratify this convention.
Why is such a convention or a national law specifically addressing the problems facing domestic workers needed? Precisely because of their invisibility. They work under individually negotiated contracts, have no job security and can be fired at will. There is no regulation about their working hours or minimum wage. Nor do the women get the benefits of sick leave, maternity leave or a weekly day off. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that they are not organised and, therefore, cannot resort to any kind of collective bargaining. A law would at least inform them of their rights and would make it clear to employers that, even if they continue to exploit them as they do today, they are wilfully breaking the law.
The ILO report titled “Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection” brings out several disturbing statistics. For instance, more than half the domestic workers around the world have no limitation on the normal weekly hours of work, or get a weekly off, or get paid get paid a minimum wage. An estimated 15.6 million women working as domestics do not get maternity leave or cash benefits.
The central government has drafted a policy for domestic workers, one that will ensure that they come under the ambit of existing laws that relate to the rights of workers — such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Trade Union Act, Payment of Wages Act, Workers’ Compensation Act, Maternity Benefits Act, Contract Labour Act and Equal Remuneration Act. Karnataka was the first state to fix minimum wages for domestic workers, to accept that they were entitled to a weekly off and to ban children less than 14 years of age working as domestic workers. Of course, the implementation of this policy is another story but at least a beginning has been made.
There are many layers to the issue of violence against women. But as women’s groups have been repeatedly emphasising over the past weeks, several simple interventions can be made. I would suggest that one such step could be to implement a policy for domestic workers. Even though domestic workers now come under the ambit of the law on sexual harassment at workplace, as long as they continue to work as isolated, atomised individuals without other rights granted to workers in general, they will remain vulnerable to all forms of violence and exploitation.
If we can deal with these dark spaces in our society, where there is little value for the rights of the people who do thankless work, perhaps then we will be better placed to talk about the more visible forms of abuse and assault that have dominated public discussion and debate.