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Leftovers For Food, No Min. Wage: How Delhi’s Domestic Workers Are Denied Their Rights

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By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:

I met Moni, Bubbly, and Lata on a weekend after the International Domestic Workers’ Day on June 16. Around 100 women had gathered on the premises of a Gurudwara at Tigri Colony in Sangam Vihar for a programme for domestic workers. As the event was coming to a conclusion with performances by the children of the workers and slogans of ‘Ladenge, Jeetenge’, the women narrated their daily ordeals.

Like most domestic workers in Delhi- who clean and dust houses or offices, wash clothes or utensils, cook, babysit, etc- they live in a one or two room accommodation in a J. J. Colony or urban village and travel to nearby residential areas for work. Moni has once lived in the servants’ quarters provided by her employer. She was not given any wages there. Bubbly had no fixed hours of work at her previous job and would sometimes be served stale food from the night before if she asked for it out of hunger. At one place Moni works now, her utensils are kept under the wash-basin because her employers are vegetarian. At another household where she worked, she would be accused of stealing things the employers themselves had misplaced.

Still Not Recognised As Workers

“They (the Labour Department) are not accepting that the domestic workers are workers,” Kalai Selvi, who heads the Delhi unit of National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), told me later. The programme for which the domestic workers had gathered was organised by her NGO. Kalai told me that they have been trying to get their informal union registered, but the South District Labour Office rejected their application when they learnt that it was related to domestic workers.

Delhi’s case is important as an ILO report published in 2015 (Indispensable yet Unprotected: Working conditions of Indian domestic workers at home and abroad) identifies Jharkhand to Delhi as “one of the most frequented migration routes for female domestic workers”, apart from the emigration route from the state of Kerala to Arab countries.

Another study (Influx of Tribal Domestic Workers: A Study of Role of Placement Agencies in Delhi) commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD), which was published by the Indian Social Institute, a research-oriented NGO, says the same. Explaining the influx, it says that the reason for high demand for domestic workers in Delhi is because of the high concentration of firms with highly paid, skilled, professional employees. It further adds that the “upkeep of these professionals working long hours is only possible because of the support of host of low paid workers”.

Despite Delhi being a major employer of domestic workers, far from being pro-active, the State government has been loath to give them any kind of recognition.

The Central Government, for instance, passed the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act in 2008, which at least recognised domestic work as work. (This too, however, was made possible only after a writ petition was filed by the National Domestic Workers Trust (which runs the NDWM) and others in this regard during the consultation process on the draft bill). The Act mandated the formation of a State Social Security Board to recommend, advise, and monitor social welfare schemes for unorganised workers (including domestic workers). The Act also provided for the formation of workers’ facilitation centres for registration of such workers. None of this has been implemented by the Delhi Government yet, meaning that domestic workers remain effectively unrecognised. Some other states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir have, however, formed the State Social Security Board.

What Happens When Domestic Work Is Not Recognised

Delhi has also not amended its Schedule of Employment to include domestic workers, although the Labour and Employment Secretary recommended this with emphasis in a 2010 letter to all Chief Secretaries. This means that the average wage of domestic workers in the NCT is about Rs 5886, much lower than the Rs 9,568 that even unskilled workers included in the Schedule of Employment of the Government of Delhi are entitled to. This average wage was calculated in the aforementioned study on placement agencies.

Kalai Selvi of NDWM, however, says that their demand is that the Central government too ratify the ILO’s International Domestic Workers Convention. The Convention basically asks for a member country ratifying it to fix minimum wages for domestic workers, ensure their protection from any kind of abuse, allow them to associate for collective bargaining, etc. India has not ratified the convention yet.

The Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya told the Rajya Sabha last year that India can ratify the convention only when laws “are brought in conformity with the provisions of the Convention”. But the draft Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act, prepared by the National Commission for Women in 2010, has not inspired any action. In fact, the Central Government has not even adopted the draft National Policy for Domestic Workers yet, although it was ready 5 years ago in 2011.

In the absence of any comprehensive legislation for domestic workers in Delhi, Anita Juneja of the Delhi Gharelu Kamgaar Sangathan- which Juneja claims registered itself as a union of domestic workers in 2011- argues, the health of domestic workers takes a toll.

No guaranteed holidays or sick leaves imply that they usually resort to taking homemade remedies instead of going to the hospital. The manual work leaves them incapable of working or being employed by the time the workers are in their 40s.

“Employers cannot look after you for life,” she says when asked whether employers sensitive to the issues of domestic workers can be of any help. Any employer, she adds, will only invest in a worker in proportion to the hours that they employ a worker.

Although the workers that I talked to aspired to continue to send their children to school so that they don’t end up like their parent, they said they were unable to look after them properly. Moreover, Kalai Selvi of NDWM says, as soon as a child is old enough, she either looks after the younger children or is taken as an apprentice with her mother. She argues that it becomes a hereditary occupation.

Private Placement Agencies

The absence of legislation has also had another effect- a thriving industry of illegal private placement agencies. According to the report commissioned by the Ministry of WCD, these agencies lure women from rural areas to cities “promising them lucrative salary, lifestyle and benefits”.

The report further identifies that these agencies flourish in areas that “are surrounded by affluent localities that require domestic helps”. Thus areas like Pitampura, Sukurpur, Kotla Mubarakapur, Zamrudpur, Chilla Gaon, Punjabi Bagh, Raghubir Nagar, and Karol Bagh have become what the report calls ‘Placement Clusters’. Availability of cheap rented rooms, the report says, helps them keep the “women hidden in the congested locality”.

In this regard, the Delhi government evolved a Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill in 2012 to regulate the placement agencies. However, it took repeated reminders by the Delhi High Court for even an executive order for their regulation to be passed finally in 2014. This order mandated that the placement agencies seek registration with the Labour Department under the Delhi Shops and Establishment Act or the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act within 30 days of the publication of the Order in the Delhi Gazette.

However, the report says that not a single agency – among the 50 studied- had registered itself under the two Acts. It found that even among the registered ones there was no uniformity of registration, although all these were registered under the Society’s Registration Act. The Labour Department too was supposed to upload the details of these agencies according to the executive order, but it has not done so yet.

Where Does Delhi Stand Now

Finally, a committee to suggest welfare measures for domestic workers was constituted last year by the Delhi Government and it submitted its report to the Delhi Labour Minister in October. This committee, headed by AAP MLA Bandana Kumari, too had come to the conclusion by consensus that an exclusive legislation for domestic workers be drafted soon and that meanwhile rules under the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act could be framed exclusively for domestic workers.

Anita Juneja, who was a member of this Committee, tells me that since the submission of the committee’s report only a draft bill concerning domestic workers has been prepared. This bill too, she claims, mostly regulates the placement agencies, meaning social security schemes for domestic workers are not yet in the offing. “It is not as if they want to work for domestic workers,” she says.

Texts and emails sent to the Labour Minister and emails sent to the Labour Commissioner inquiring the progress made on the committee’s recommendations, including on legislation, did not elicit any answers. However, YKA has since accessed the draft bill and verified Juneja’s claims.

The only support system for domestic workers then seems to be the formal or informal unions, which, Juneja says, has had some benefits. Holding rallies, distributing pamphlets, and talking to the employers about the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers does help workers negotiate on issues of discrimination with their employers. The union also helps the workers get PDS and educates them on domestic violence, harassment, and other issues. Kalai Selvi at the National Domestic Workers Movement, which has not been able to register a union, also says the same of the benefits of their informal union.

When governments continue to fail these workers, it is their own local unity and solidarity that lets them bargain at times. When an employer repeatedly pressed Lata to take up domestic work at his house in place of an older worker, she refused to take up that job, although it would have added to her income. She questions why older workers are not hired. It’s not as if domestic workers get pension.

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