Coinciding with the World Day for Social Justice on 20 February, the Employment and Social Protection Task Team, led by ILO, launched joint advocacy and communication on the theme of Rights for Domestic Workers in February 2014. The theme stimulated public debate on the rights and equality issues of domestic workers including safety, working conditions, wages, social protection, employer’s expectations and employer-employee relationships with a view to collectively promote decent work for domestic workers.
ABOUT DOMESTIC WORKERS
More women in India are receiving an education than ever before and the country has recorded consistent economic growth. Despite this, India continues to have one of lowest rates of female workforce participation in the world.
Close to 54 percent of working age women between the ages of 15 to 59 are not available for work because of household responsibilities or domestic work. In addition, they undertake tasks such as fetching wood and water which goes towards the care and sustenance of their family. Such work is called many things – unpaid care work, reproductive work, social care functions and so on.
Hired domestic workers ease the burden of individual households by undertaking household chores in return for remuneration. The tasks include the care of children and the elderly, cooking, driving, cleaning, grocery shopping, running errands and taking care of household pets, particularly in urban areas. However, despite the benefits this work brings to individual households, domestic workers are often not recognized as workers by society.
Tasks performed by them are not recognized as ‘work’. Domestic workers in India continue to struggle for visibility and recognition. 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 in various states refer to domestic workers, there remains an absence of comprehensive, uniformly applicable, national legislation that guarantees fair terms of employment and decent working conditions. Domestic workers should however be guaranteed the same terms of employment as enjoyed by other workers.
Understanding domestic work
Unlike other forms of labour market activity, domestic work takes place in an unconventional place of work, i.e. the household. Gaining public acceptance of a household as a place of work is a challenge. Implementation of labour laws such as minimum wages and regularized work hours, which are essential elements of any kind of work, also remain a challenge. Such regulation is complex because the nature of domestic work is unique compared to other forms of work. The sector lacks effective means to regulate working conditions, for example, through streamlined job descriptions which could be offered through standard contracts. Furthermore, unlike work in a formal setting, domestic work is not guided by clear and agreed production or output goals. Enforcing labour laws remains a significant bottleneck. This is because privacy norms do not bode well with the idea of labour inspectors entering private households and ensuring regulations.
Policymakers, legislative bodies and people need to recognize the existence of an employment relationship in domestic work. Such a view would see domestic workers as not just “helpers” who are “part of the family” but as employed workers entitled to the rights and dignity that employment brings with it.
INVISIBLE AND UNRECOGNIZED BUT CRUCIAL FOR WOMEN’S LIVELIHOODS
At present, domestic work stands as a readily-available livelihood option for millions of women. While a large number of women are engaged in this sector, it is important to look at the working conditions that exist in this sector. Fixing fair, minimum wages, providing weekly days off and paid annual leaves, protecting from physical and sexual abuse and ensuring social security, are key issues that need to be addressed by the government nationally, and across India’s states.
LAW AND ORDER VERSUS RIGHTS-BASED APPROACHES
Physical and sexual abuse against domestic workers is often reported in the media. Various studies and reports also reveal that domestic workers are subjected to discrimination on grounds of religion, caste and ethnicity. Often, these challenges are placed in a law and order framework instead of a labour rights framework. Regulating domestic work through legislation is the only way to address abuses against domestic workers. Data released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in February 2014, published in response to a question tabled in the upper house of Parliament, track reports of violence against domestic helpers between 2010 and 2012. Overall, in India’s 28 states and 7 union territories, there were 3,564 cases of alleged violence against domestic workers reported in 2012, up slightly from 3,517 in 2011 and 3,422 in 2010.
STATES PROTECTION FOR DOMESTIC WORKERS
The state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have taken several steps to improve the working conditions of domestic workers and to provide access to social security schemes. Seven states including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, and Rajasthan have introduced minimum wages for domestic workers. The state governments of Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu have also constituted Welfare Boards for domestic workers who are able to avail of welfare benefits by registering with these Boards. However, despite these efforts, a large majority of domestic workers remain outside the purview of labour laws even today.
ADDRESSING GENDER INEQUALITY THROUGH EQUALITY OF DOMESTIC WORK
Domestic work has enabled many women to enter the labour market and benefit from economic autonomy. However, this has not translated into gender equality. Worldwide, household responsibilities and unpaid care work continue to pose significant barriers to women’s labour market participation. On many occasions, ILO has argued the need to change the idea that care-giving is a private domestic responsibility unique to women.
A greater sense of social co-responsibility must be developed- first towards a redistribution of responsibilities between households, the market and the state, that is a shift toward society as a whole assuming responsibility for the process of reproducing the labour force; and second, towards redistributing reproductive work/unpaid care work between men and women, in line with the change that has already taken place regarding productive (paid) work.
In order to leave behind the assumption that women alone must balance productive work with family and care responsibilities, we must foster alternative models of maternity, paternity and masculinity. Hence, what is needed is a reconfiguration of the financing of ‘care’ from the current model that relies heavily on the households, the women and the domestic workers, to the state. This can be done through measures such as making available good quality full-day child care especially for the low income population and facilitating the development of effective policies to enable workers to meet demands of unpaid work (for example, leave policies and working time policies).
The large supply of domestic workers in India has meant a meant a shift of care responsibilities from women in the households to hired domestic workers who are a predominantly female and largely invisible. This, in itself, did not challenge broader structural gender inequality. Hence, ILO’s demands for decent work for domestic workers are two pronged- first and foremost, it calls for recognition of the rights of domestic workers for fair terms of employment that are no less favourable than those of other workers; secondly, it calls for the active participation of the state and the recognition of the existence of structural inequality that is perpetuated by not recognizing the sheer weight of ‘care work’.