I am again going to the office of the Deputy Labour Commissioner (DLC) of South Delhi district today. Frankly, by now, I am used to this never-ending ordeal. In the last two years, I have visited this office more than half a dozen times to get one simple thing done: register a union of domestic workers in the district.
In January 2016, when I first started working as a state coordinator in Delhi for NDWM (National Domestic Workers’ Movement), they refused to even accept our registration papers, saying domestic workers are not ‘officially’ recognised as workers. After a year long wait, they finally accepted the registration papers in December. I was told that they would respond once they review our file.
But, that too, didn’t happen for a while. So, we submitted proof of existence of our unions in five states and of a union of domestic workers in Delhi – all just to bolster our case. Finally, in May this year, after having run after the authorities for one and a half year, we got a response from the DLC office in writing, rejecting our application. They told us that domestic workers do not fall under the definition of ‘workmen’ according to Delhi’s laws. This, for a group of workers, who according to even government studies, ensure that your ever-growing cities remain shiny.
I still visit the office. I still get the same response. This is disheartening, but we will not stop fighting. Even if I need to go to the office a hundred times, I will.
On the surface, this ordeal may seem like a legal-procedural hurdle, but the truth is that the failure to recognise domestic workers affects lakhs of people who are a part of the profession, 2/3rds of them women. What is worse is that this has been the status quo for almost a decade now. If we continue like this, I don’t think we will be able to give decent work to all women and men even in the next decade.
Things were supposed to change with the enactment of The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008, that gave domestic workers their due recognition. But this recognition in the central act hasn’t helped, because states have failed to include domestic workers in their respective schedules of employment.
Until 2012, only 7 states had included them in the schedule. More recently, Assam, Odisha and the UT Daman and Diu have made some start in this direction. Delhi is yet to make amends – with the known registered union being called a ‘mistake’.
But why do we desperately need a union, you wonder? Let me explain by sharing two examples.
In September, we learnt about a domestic worker near Tigri area of South Delhi working at a government office. She was not being paid her monthly salary because she had taken leave for a few days. Around five-six domestic workers with NDWM organised themselves around her and with a staff member went to negotiate with her employers. The domestic worker got her salary immediately. This is the power that an individual gets against injustice when they are part of a union or group.
Now consider another case. A domestic worker was verbally abused because she served roti to her employer on a plate that had not been wiped. She was even denied her monthly wages due to this reason. When we went to the house, the owner dared us to try and do anything we like. But we couldn’t do anything. Because, by law, the labour department doesn’t recognize domestic work.
This is just one of the many such problems that this lack of recognition poses for domestic workers. Most of these workers are migrants who need work to survive. Since there is no contract, they are forced to accept whatever wage the employer sets, without any increment over time.
Moreover, they are assumed to be easily replaceable. If they stop working, there are other people to take their work. If somebody needs Rs.1000, another worker would agree to work for Rs. 500. When they ask for an increment in salary, they are accused of theft and fired using similar excuses. Apart from verbal or physical abuse, sexual harassment is also rampant, creating an unsafe working environment.
What I understand from this is that although we say India is developing, domestic workers don’t get a share of that development. In the field of domestic work, the employer doesn’t lose anything, whereas the employee risks everything. This is against the foundations of a democratic society.
Recognition of a union could change all of this. I have noticed that when unions have their own wage code, everybody stands united, and nobody goes to work with an employer who doesn’t give them the wages they demand. After all, in Delhi, just by associating with each other, now more workers are aware that they too have rights and laws that protect them.
We have also asked the parliament to enact uniform laws across the country – instead of an unenforceable policy being formulated. Isn’t it due to this that we haven’t been able to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on decent work for domestic workers?
From the Delhi government and all those who refuse to recognize domestic work as actual work, I just want to know this – If domestic workers are not workers, who are they? If they don’t come to your house, will you be able to go to work?
As told to Abhishek Jha
Note: Among the goals for sustainable development adopted by India at the United Nations in 2015 is the goal to promote inclusive employment and decent work for all. To achieve this goal, not only does India need to provide “decent work for all women and men” by 2030, it also needs to protect labour rights and promote a safe working environment, especially for women migrants.