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The abuse faced by a domestic worker in her employer’s home in Gurgaon has sparked outrage. However, such outrage is often short-lived. Violence against domestic workers in India has been reported for many years. Yet, their exploitation receives attention only when individual cases of violence get reported in the media. The response of the Union and State Governments is also reactive e.g., in the present case the Government of Jharkhand has set up a team to probe the case. There no uniform policy or legislation has been formulated regarding the domestic workers. As majority of such workers are migrants, there is a need for greater coordination between the Union and State Governments to address the challenges faced by the domestic workers
What is domestic work and the current status with respect to Domestic Workers in India?
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO ) Domestic Workers Convention, 2011, Article 1: (a) The term ‘domestic work’ means work performed in or for a household or households; (b) The term ‘domestic worker’ means any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship; (c) A person who performs domestic work only occasionally or sporadically and not on an occupational basis is not a domestic worker.
Based on everyday working hours and nature of employment, domestic workers are classified into part-time, full-time and live-in workers.
Current Status: It is estimated that there are 4.8 million domestic workers including 2.9 million female domestic workers. Domestic work accounts for 3.5% of women’s total employment. Domestic workers form the third-largest category of workers after agriculture and construction. However, according to the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, the number of domestic workers exceeds 50 million. More than 66% of the workers are working in urban areas. The share of women and girls in domestic work is rising at a much rapid pace, accounting for 75% increase in the number of workers in the last decade.
The majority of domestic workers in India are illiterate/ minimally educated and low-skilled. ~200,000 children are employed as domestic help and in dhabas.
What are the challenges faced by Domestic Workers in India?
Poor Working Conditions: Domestic workers are denied minimum wages. They lack any social security cover. Many workers are exploited to work for long hours. Live-in workers are more vulnerable to physical abuse and harassment. Most domestic workers are poor migrants with no other skills. Moreover, a majority of domestic workers belong to the SC/STs. They are more vulnerable to exploitation due to their lack of literacy and their social status.
Lack of Laws to Protect Rights: The domestic workers in India are not covered by any Act. The National Commission for Women had drafted the Domestic Workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Bill in 2008-10. The Bill had sought to cover various aspects like wages, working conditions, offences and penalties, and creation of Domestic Workers Welfare Fund among others. However, the Bill wasn’t passed. Similarly, the Draft Policy on Domestic Workers has been waiting for approval since 2017. In the absence of any regulation regarding working condition, workers remain vulnerable to exploitation.
Issues in Implementation: Domestic work was added to the list of scheduled employment under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, which coincided with the 2011 ILO convention 189. However, the implementation remains poor, with most domestic workers working below minimum wage level. Only 13 States/UTs have passed legislation requiring minimum wages for domestic employees.
The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, requires all States to establish welfare boards to ensure domestic workers receive benefits. However, several States have not complied with the requirement.
Insufficient Data: There is lack of reliable data regarding number of domestic workers. There is large variation among estimates, with number of workers varying from 4 million to 50 million. The absence of data acts as a barrier to the formulation of appropriate plans and the allocation of resources for the improvement of the conditions of domestic workers.
Informal Placement Agencies/Housekeeping Companies: The companies that provide domestic workers in urban areas themselves function in an informal manner. They are more focused on their own profits and care little about the rights of the workers. Lack of scrutiny of their functioning contributes to the exploitation of the workers.
Neglect of Domestic Labour Rights: Legislation pertaining to workers such as the Industry Disputes Act, 1947, the Employee’s Provident Fund Act, 1952, and the Factories Act, 1948, do not recognise the labour performed by domestic workers in private households as ‘work’.
Poor Unionisation: Only a small fraction of domestic workers are unionised or are part of organised groups. Lack of unionisation reduces their bargaining power to demand better wages. In the absence of any union, no support mechanism is available to workers facing exploitation and physical abuse.
What steps have been taken for the welfare of Domestic Workers?
Safeguards: There are some Constitutional safeguards e.g., Article 23 (under Fundamental Rights) prohibits traffic in human beings, begar and other forms of forced labour. Article 39(e) under Directive Principles exhorts the State to ensure that the health and strength of individuals are not abused and that no one is forced by economic necessity to do work unsuited to their age or strength.
Domestic workers in India have been included in The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The Child Labour Act has included domestic work in prohibited employment for children only up to age of 14 years. The Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 has been effective to some extent in the rescue of workers below the age of 18 years.
Schemes and Other Initiatives: The Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) was extended to cover domestic workers. They are now covered under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana.
The e-Shram portal aims to register 38 crore unorganised workers in the country.
A Voluntary Employers’ Pledge to Promote Decent Work for Domestic Workers in India was launched and adopted by All India Organizations of Employers and Employers Federation of India.
The Union Minister for Labour and Employment has flagged off the first ever All India Survey on Domestic Workers (DW).
Global Initiatives: (a) The Palermo Protocol, part of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, provides the definition of ‘trafficking in persons‘. A definition of trafficking that is in accordance with the Palermo Protocol has been integrated into the domestic law of India; (b) The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the European Commission have collaborated to establish operational indicators of trafficking in humans; (c) Convention 29 of the International Labor Organization was passed in 1930. It has defined forced or compulsory labour. Convention 189 of the ILO mandates decent working conditions for domestic workers.
What more steps should be taken going ahead?
First, there is a need for greater social and political commitment to address the challenges faced by domestic workers. In the absence of such commitment, the abuse will continue.
Second, Due to differences among categories of domestic workers (like part-time, live-in etc.), the methods of determining minimum wages are complex (employing either ‘a need-based formula’ or a living wage, based on time and piece rate). There is a need to standardise the type and amount of work performed.
Third, The data regarding migrant workers must be improved. This will help in better assessment regarding the status of domestic workers.
Fourth, Since most domestic workers in India are migrants, there is need for better cooperation among States to address the issues. The Union Government can step-in to ensure better coordination. A draft Model Act can be enacted by the Parliament which can be adapted by States according to their local conditions.
Fifth, A report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) recommends that the Government should formulate a binding National Policy on Domestic Workers, instead of providing general guidelines.
Sixth, The Government has developed an Integrated National Plan of Action against Trafficking. The Government is also taking steps to put some remedial measures in place in the form of Integrated Anti-Trafficking Units and Anti-Trafficking nodal cells. However, there is a need for a more comprehensive legislation on labour trafficking.
Seventh, the CHRI Report recommends that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, must be reviewed to improve complaint mechanisms for domestic workers.
Eighth, There is a need to sustain and support organizations for domestic workers to improve their bargaining power. Civil society should take the lead in encouraging collective action among the workers.
Domestic Workers in India have been facing exploitation for long. Several social and political factors make them vulnerable. The lack of dedicated legal provisions and poor implementation of existing provisions has led to the present status. The Union and State Governments must step in formulate comprehensive policy and legislation to protect their rights. Violation of rights of workers should be dealt with strictly. At the same time, there is a need for greater sensitization to prevent instances of physical abuse.
Syllabus: GS I, Social Empowerment; GS II, Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes.