Women constitute the largest share of domestic workers in our country. With women making up for over 80% of all domestic workers, the services provided by them are devalued to an extent that they have been rendered invisible. According to data provided by Delhi Labour Organisation, there are over five crore domestic workers in India most of whom are women. As a Member of Parliament, I introduced The Domestic Workers (Decent Working Conditions) Bill in 2015, and view this as critical legislation for the recognition of their work and providing them with legal protection.
Most of the domestic workers come from marginalised communities, at times from rural and tribal areas and are subjected to an entirely new habitat without humane working conditions. They are denied fair wages, sometimes made to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week without an off. Most live their working life in inadequacy, exploitation, wearily overworked and have to continue working as long as their health and age permits. Female domestic workers who are already disadvantaged and lead a peripheral existence are exposed to greater vulnerabilities at their workplace. For years, class and caste identity have not only been a determinant of work performed by an individual but also of the way their employers treat them. Female domestic workers are kept in a state of perpetual dependence and abject servitude with no safeguards against potential abuse.
As Chairperson of the SC/ST Committee, I have heard several women employed in domestic work narrate their experiences. It affects me profoundly to see how the lives of domestic workers in the private space of a household are pervaded by a feudalistic mindset that reeks of casteism ungoverned by any law. It is a gross violation of their fundamental rights, with their right to liberty and right to equality constantly infringed upon. Their wages are often cut, miscalculated, sometimes even paid below the legally mandated minimum wages, with no medical facilities or benefits, and they are often looked down upon with suspicion by their employers. They could be dismissed from work over trivial mistakes, with no alternative and pushed into living a life of indigence. Their everyday experience is of living with unending job insecurity.
The International Labour Organization adopted Convention 189 in 2011 to “offer specific protection to domestic workers”. While India has voted in favour of the convention, we are yet to ratify it. While the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 is a social welfare scheme and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 protects working women in general, neither of these holistically recognise the importance of the rights of domestic workers which further warrants us to introspect why a comprehensive domestic workers rights bill has not been legislated yet. It is also indicative of a lack of policy discourse on domestic workers, 80% of whom are women. The Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 does not recognise domestic work as hazardous; it is not included in the list of prohibited occupations, and thus the work performed by a child inside the private space of a household is out of the ambit of the Child Labor law. The Domestic Workers Bill proposed by me prohibits employment of children as domestic workers.
The bill is an attempt to empower domestic workers and give them justiciable rights; to give priority to their rights rather than seeing them as a security threat. The bill clearly defines and regulates the work performed by the domestic worker – 8 hours a day of work, regular intervals of rest periods after every five consecutive work hours, and twice the standard wage rate if one agrees to work overtime, with paid annual leaves, sick leaves, food and accommodation. Most of the domestic workers negotiate their terms of work on an individual basis, and the bill attempts to bring uniformity in their working conditions. The government will decide fair wages and other requirements at the workplace, in consultation with the unions.
In particular, the bill recognises Domestic Workers’:
The social standing of a domestic worker needs to be equal to that of any other worker. Bringing domestic workers within the scope of legal protection is the only recourse through which we can bring legitimacy to their work, which until now remains invisible even in the unorganised sector. Society will progress with ideas that shape legislation and eventually take over the practices and the deep-seated mental and moral habits which constitute class and caste prejudices.