15 Hour Shifts, Low Wages: How 5 Crore Indians Are Forced To Work In Slave-Like Conditions

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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’:

  1. Right to earn livelihood free from forced and compulsory labour
  2. Right to earn minimum wages
  3. Right to decent working conditions
  4. Right to address grievances in an appropriate manner
  5. Right to organise
  6. Right to not be discriminated against at workplace

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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