Private power, public apathy: labour laws for domestic workers

Domestic workers are among the most exploited sections of the Indian workforce. In the past, domestic work was closely enmeshed with feudal structures of labour extraction, such as begar. Typically, such work was unpaid, or was paid for at a nominal rate in kind. It was dominant, elite groups who extracted such work from predominantly ‘lower’ caste groups or labouring groups for domestic/household purposes. The 1931 Census recorded a large pool of labour, i.e. 27 lakh, as domestic workers, or ‘servants’ as they were then known. They were then predominantly male workers. These high numbers reduced considerably with the growing intensity of the anti-feudal struggle and development of occupational diversities in the post-Independence era. The 1971 Census recorded only 67,000 domestic workers. However, this trend has been reversed since the early 1990s when India’s economic policy pushed forward with liberalisation. The 1991 Census recorded 10 lakh domestic workers. Subsequent National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data of the post-liberalisation period has mapped a continuous increase in this figure. The NSSO data of 2004-05, for example, has recorded 47 lakh domestic workers in India; the majority of whom, i.e. 30 lakh, were women. As of today, a large number of these workers are inter-State migrant labourers from impoverished districts in West Bengal, Assam and Jharkhand.


The Noida flash point

The recent confrontation between this otherwise docile workforce of domestic workers and their wealthy employers in Noida (Uttar Pradesh) brought to light, yet again, the widespread exploitation of domestic workers, and the huge antagonism between their interests and those of their employers. The Noida incident has also revealed the sickening nexus between the police, employers, as well as right-wing politicians who have extended support to the wealthy residents. Within hours, an obvious labour issue, and the effort of workers to locate a missing female domestic worker was projected as a communal confrontation.

With the accused employers and their sympathisers identifying the protesting workers and the missing domestic worker as ‘Bangladeshis’, the social media exploded with communal diatribe and messages of hate. Within days, shanty shops opposite building complex, on which the slum dwellers were dependent for their daily provisions, were razed to the ground by the civic authorities. The police, meanwhile, have focussed their entire investigation on the ‘riot’ that erupted at the housing society’s gates, and have arrested some workers. Their investigation does not take into account the first First Information Report lodged in this case, which is that of the female domestic worker who went missing on the night prior to the confrontation.

The incident, yet again, exposes the crisis nurtured by the Indian state’s unwillingness to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and thereby, to modify landmark labour laws so as to bring domestic work under the purview of state regulation. Importantly, the unwillingness of the state to regulate this work relation means that it is complicit in keeping intact the private power of regulation enjoyed by the employer. In turn, the private nature of regulation has allowed the employer to exercise quasi-magisterial powers over the domestic worker in India. Such authoritarian power of the employer in the work relation bears close resemblance to penal work regimes of the early colonial period in which employers predefined the terms of contract and penalised attempts by the worker to leave or renegotiate the contract. Typically, workers’ attempts to renegotiate their terms of work or to leave such employment are outbid by verbal, and often, physical assaults by employers. If these measures don’t work then many employers simply proceed to debar the affected workers from entering the building complex for work at other apartments. Domestic workers then take on an almost absolute risk of unemployment or criminalisation when they try to obtain their dues.

Seeds of overexploitation

Typically, the employer-dominated, domestic work industry is characterised by low, stagnant wage rates. Wages are particularly low for Bengali and Adivasi workers. Many women slaving away at such low wage rates are subsequently compelled to seek employment in more than one house, and to make their teenage daughters pick up similar work. Irregular payment of wages by employers, extraction of more work than agreed upon at the start of employment, and the practice of arbitrarily reducing wages are rampant problems that breed overexploitation of domestic workers.

The near absolute authority of the employer, stemming from the lack of state regulation of domestic service, reduces the domestic worker to nothing short of servility. This is not the average employer–employee relationship where an employee has certain tangible rights, and thus, cannot be easily reduced to abject servitude. In sharp contrast, the very nature of the intense manual work performed, the persistent surveillance, and the quasi-magisterial authority of the employer means that the domestic worker functions like servile labour. It is, after all, not uncommon to find the average domestic worker tiptoeing around the apartment so as to least get in the way of employers, and being reduced to a submissive, docile existence. Such vulnerability and over-exploitation cannot be ignored any further, especially with the continuous growth in the number of impoverished women and children entering the domestic services industry in the post-liberalisation era. The lack of redressal machinery for workers in this rapidly developing industry is compelling desperate workers to resort to violent forms of agitation, and in such a scenario we may witness the recurrence of Noida-like incidents in the future.

Maya John, an assistant professor at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi, is associated with the Domestic Workers’ Union

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Printable version | Sep 30, 2020 3:01:41 PM |

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