Will the National Policy for Domestic Workers Truly Empower the Poor or Pave way for Class-Conflict?

Posted on June 3, 2012 in Society

By Girija S. Semuwal:

The draft national policy for domestic workers, the first of its kind in India, is ready to go to the Cabinet for its approval. This policy entitles domestic workers, otherwise commonly called “servants”, to minimum wages, defined work hours, paid annual and sick leave, maternity benefits and the right to join or form trade unions.

“The thrust of the policy is to bring domestic workers under the purview of existing labor laws, which would help them avail all the rights and protection available to other workers.”

The need for something of this nature has been there for a long time. The need is borne out of a social reality surrounded by many issues – underdevelopment, class equations, migration, crime — to name a few. Chiefly an urban phenomenon (or as is assumed in this case), the employer and domestic worker relationship is far from dignified. As it stands out, the relationship is exploitative, with most employers prone to ill-treating their domestic helpers in one way or the other.

There is a flip side too. Domestic workers, especially those who work in multiple households and have been “in the trade” for quite a while, understand their own indispensability to employers and have learned how to take advantage — many a times undue — of this fact. On the extreme, some develop criminal tendencies.

Historically, there has been a big divide between ruling classes and serving classes. This policy is geared at reshaping this relationship in the form of a proper contractual arrangement. Some commentators opine that the policy impetus is a result of international pressures especially in light of the employment standards recently adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for domestic workers, which mandates fixed work hours and minimum wages.

Fact remains that the labor rights the policy proposes to guarantee are not enjoyed by the average domestic worker. There is no concrete mechanism to shield them against exploitation. So the policy would hopefully fill this gap.

But conforming to international standards is just one thing. A closer look at local variations is needed to come to an understanding about how the issue manifests locally. There is little sense of agreement between the employers and the employed on most issues regarding work. Employers want to extract as much work as they can from helpers at minimum wages. They feel handicapped in their absence, so helps going on leave is a big issue. Many employers are also very judgmental of helps’ personal lives and express their value judgments derisively. Domestic workers too, in view of their employers’ insensitivities, show resistance indirectly – by not doing work to the employer’s satisfaction, retorting verbally or absenting themselves randomly.

So even if the policy is implemented properly, will it seal the trust deficit between employers and workers?

The one tricky provision under the policy – granting right to form or join unions — has implications that can widen the trust deficit. In what are informal networks between domestic workers of all kinds, could be turned into unions indulging in constant confrontation with employers, with backing from political influences seeking to benefit in terms of vote bank. Over time, the mafia may also use the situation to their advantage; in what ways, one can only imagine.

Social surveys tell us that you can’t generalize employers. There are varying attitudes that are function of family values and local culture, socio-economic disposition, education, other household and personal variables. While many employers are downright abusive going to the extent of starving young helps or locking them up, quite a few are kind enough to go as far as support domestic helps’ healthcare or their children’s education. Personal bonds of attachment and belonging of immeasurable human value are formed thus. These transcend the language of social norms, policy and politics.

The closest generalization for employers I can make is that a predominantly exploitative mentality is in flux with a few positives emerging here and there. If unionization happens the way I’m apprehending, then these positive changes could get hampered. Socially relevant thinking needs to be done on these lines, for policies should always take the future into account.

Guaranteeing social justice and dignity of work and living conditions are very important goals for any nation. But social change is often more complex than what it’s made to sound. Making amendments to existing acts or making laws may be crucial but they should be seen as the first step.

The most appreciable aspect of the policy, in my view, is that there will be a monitoring committee that would oversee the proper implementation of the policy. My submission to them would be to ensure that the transition from end-of-exploitation to empowerment does not turn into the beginning of class-confrontation. For now, it feels positive to suggest that a historically oppressive arrangement is seeing winds of change.