By Chinmaya Shah:
Well. They are everywhere. In our homes, around small dhabas and, at times, in places we often forget to notice. They work, yes they do. But are not considered as a part of the ‘services providing community’. They are paid, often very less, and many times in a form of abuses and physical ill-treatment. They resist but fail to voice out their grievances due to lack of solidarity. What else can they do since another member seems to be already waiting in queue to replace the former and this cycle moves ahead in continuation.
India, as recorded in 2004-2005, was home to 3.05 million urban domestic workers; most of them comprising of women. With such a portion of our population working in the ‘informal sector’, as the government terms it, it is surprising to find any existence of laws working in favor of this sector .We are most likely to find a case of violence against domestic workers on a national daily, but certainly fails to notice the vulnerability they face not only in their work spaces but also as individuals. But, like everything else, there exists its causality. The shift in the economy from agrarian to industrial has also caused a change in the working conditions and services. With people showing a certain degree of detachment from the agricultural sector, they are forced to enter into menial jobs. But due to lack of educational qualifications, they also fail to qualify in bargaining power for their services. With masses deserting the villages at an alarming rate for better economic and social conditions, the urban landscape is getting filled up with unemployed people who are at the brink of getting exploited. Most migrated people are likely to end as domestic servants doing daily chores of cleaning, sweeping, washing utensils or vehicles, working as maids for cooking as well as outdoor shopping and possibly as a helper in childcare or for the aged family members. In recent years, a certain influx of people from Bihar, UP, Chhattisgarh and parts of the North East is being witnessed, these people are getting engaged as domestic workers in most of the urban cities. Migrants from the North-Eastern states are subjected to racial stereotyping and prejudices due to language barriers, and also due to their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness.
Moreover, gender, along with caste, acts as an important player in describing the working conditions, variation in the wages and quality of services provided by the employer. A male domestic worker is best suited for ‘manly’ jobs in a particular environment. From working in a shop of the employer to carrying heavy duty tasks or acting as a security guard, the entire job profile is managed by the societal image of that particular gender. As for a woman, she is entitled for household works which are considered feminine enough and ‘apt’ according to her physical and mental capability. One can find women in ‘motherly’ roles by taking care of the aged and children or as maids (bai/kaamwali) working in kitchens, just like any female is supposed to behave in a house. She might not be entitled to enter the kitchen space if she is from a lower caste, thus cooking being allowed only to upper caste women. Thus, it is interesting and also disheartening to find that the entire field of work gets allotted for the domestic workers according to the social constructs, also providing a rare opportunity to make a shift within their work spaces. The mobility is rarely to be seen and the workers get equally exploited by the employer. For women, not only mental but physical exploitation is another factor which is usually ignored.
In a country like India, the problem gets worsened as this sector fails to come under the jurisdiction of any ministry or an organization. The domestic workers are kept beyond the reach of social security benefits, thus making them more marginalized. Unlike the factory workers, they fail to form a union which in turn gives an upper hand to the employer. Studies have reported that a male worker has no specified work hours and can be forced to work as long as 18 hours a day. Hostile environment, no clear monetary and health benefits, marginal vacations, and lack of food and proper facilities, are some major issues which are often highlighted by activists and by those who are employed.
The harsh reality is that some women domestic workers, though being employed all their lives, are left with little or no savings after a certain age. Since no governmental body is there to take care of them, any monetary help at times of pregnancy, ill- health of their family members or after accidents is something least expected. Though a domestic worker can always ask the employer, but such loans or grants not only depend on how the relation is between the two, but the former is expected to get suppressed under the burden (physically and emotionally) of this rigid and hierarchical structure. In this relation, the employer considers itself as ‘maalik’ and treats the other one as aÂ ‘slave’.
So, why is that in the world’s largest democracy, the government still fails to formulate laws and reach out to the grievances of domestic workers? The answer lies not only in the structural flaws, but also in the vastness of the sector which somehow contradicts itself to get assimilated under the same umbrella. Since jobs are distributed through a verbal contract, any such written agreement which can be processed for a legal scrutiny is not present. Since the domestic work goes beyond our notions of a ‘formal workplace’, they can’t be entitled to benefits like ‘other formal workers’. Also, a person can report domestic work as his/her part time activity thus making such jobs not getting accounted in the GDP. Even for a survey, the process will be highly time and money consuming since one cannot go door to door to ask about the working conditions faced by domestic workers without the owner’s consent. But there are certain amendments and policies taken by the government in favor of the domestic workers. The inclusion made under Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008(Act 33 of 2008) and The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, amended in 2006 to not employ children as domestic workers, are visible in the forefront. Different states in the country have made their separate laws for this sector like The Domestic Workers Welfare Board Act 2008 in Maharashtra and Minimum Wages Act 1948 in 2007 implemented by the Tamil Nadu government. However, most of the regulations made have not been implemented or are in a state of negligence. With the sector highly divided into gender specifications and ‘specializations’, the ‘weaker sex’ finds itself placed at the bottom of this hierarchical ladder.
But there is always a silver lining. NGOs like Jagori, Shaktivahini and National Domestic Workers Movement are actively working for the rights and benefits of domestic workers. Recently in Gurgaon, ‘The Maids Company’,Â was initiated by Gauri Singh, which provides people on a contractual basis where all norms are made clear between the employer and the employed, and both are liable to follow the agreement. Moreover, the organization also provides specialized training to women workers before they are placed in a contract.
Therefore, only if the laws and policies work in a milieu with the employers being equally sensitive about those who are employed under them, the empty spaces and voices which we often tend to ignore will finally get noticed in a society where a human will finally be free and not in chains.