Their numbers are significant, and so is their contribution to society and national economies. Yet they remain largely invisible and without rights. This is the story of tens of thousands of domestic workers who work day in, day out, often in the shadows of others’ homes, without rights, entitlements or social protection. “I want the Government to give us equal rights. I want society to treat us with respect,” said Maxima Ekka, who was earlier a domestic worker, and who is now a member of the Domestic Workers Forum from Jharkhand.
Maxima was speaking at a panel discussion at the Press Club of India organized on 19 Feb 2014 to discuss the status of domestic workers in India. Although Maxima was treated with respect by her employers, she decided to join the Domestic Workers Forum to help thousands of other domestic workers who had not been as fortunate as her.
The invisibility and low social status awarded to this sector is compounded by the absence of a comprehensive national policy on domestic workers in India. While a draft national policy is under consideration, and while several legislations such as the Unorganized Social Security Act, 2008, Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and Minimum Wages Schedules notified by various states refer to domestic workers, there is still a crucial need for a uniformly applicable national legislation that guarantees fair terms of employment and decent working conditions to this section of the society.
Highlighting other imperatives such as higher wages, change in mindsets, identity cards, maternity benefits and old age security, Amarjit Kaur, National Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress said, “Domestic work is not charity. These workers need to be recognized as workers.” Focusing on the mindset of civil society and the general public perception that domestic work is “undignified,” Brother Verghese Theckanath; Convenor, Domestic Workers’ Forum of India, and National Platform for Comprehensive Legislation for Domestic Workers, Hyderabad said that the lack of recognition of domestic workers’ is a reflection of the society we live in and the gender inequities that persist.
The large supply of domestic workers in India has meant a shift of care responsibilities from women in the households to hired domestic workers who are predominantly female and largely invisible. This, in itself, has not challenged broader structural gender inequality. Hence, ILO’s demands for decent work for domestic workers are two-pronged, as pointed out by Tine Staermose, Director, ILO India at the panel discussion, “Social justice is about the basic fundamental rights for all workers and the need to bring them under labour legislation.”
While some states in India have taken steps to improve working conditions of domestic workers such as minimum wage notifications and constitution of welfare boards for domestic workers, there is a need for more consistency. For example, as pointed out by Neetha Pillai, Professor of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, while Kerala has the highest minimum wage for one hour of cleaning work, when cumulatively examined, overall, the rate for eight hours of cleaning work is the lowest amongst all states.