The home may be a symbol of nurturing and security, but it can be an extremely exploitative site of work. With no checks and controls in place, domestic workers around the country face a host of problems. They have no security of tenure, little bargaining power over wages, no regulation of working hours or entitlement to paid leave. In addressing these and many more issues, the Domestic Workers (Regulation of Employment, Conditions of Work, Social Security and Welfare) Bill, 2008, is like a ray of hope for domestic workers.
The processes of extremely uneven development have rendered migration for work in the urban informal economy the only survival option for the vast populace of rural and tribal hinterlands of India. Domestic work in urban households is a major avenue for employment for these migrants. Nirmala Niketan, an NGO working for migrant workers from the tribal regions of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, has approximated that 100,000 tribal girls from these regions are engaged in domestic work in Delhi alone.
The only reason that these women get over their fears of living in a big city is because here they feel that they at least have some means of earning an income. Back home there are absolutely no livelihood options, even in urban centres like Ranchi.
Shantikala, who is around 18, has come to Delhi from Ranchi with her young child, as there are no employment opportunities back home. Tara, who is around 38 years and a mother of five, refused to return to Bihar even when her husband abandoned her. "What will I do in the village and how will I feed my children there?" she asks. Nilima, who works with Nirmala Niketan, adds, "Most of our families are big. No one has less than five children. That is why we have to come here."
• Organising inside the home
• At home, at work
• In the name of servitude However, the women express resentment at being referred to as 'servants' by their employers. They are quite aware that it is they who make it possible for a large number of middle class women to step out of their homes to take part in the more lucrative formal economy. "When their work is treated as a valuable service, why should domestic work not be treated with dignity," says an indignant Bibyani, an Oraon woman, who is around 25 years old. (The Oraon tribal people inhabit various states across central and eastern India and traditionally depend on the forest for their livelihood.)
But there are other far more serious issues at stake. Many tribal women can recount incidents in which unscrupulous placement agents separated young children from their parents and engaged them in domestic work in urban homes in slave-like conditions. Edna (name changed), 11, had come to Delhi from Jharkhand with her siblings and mother to work at the site of the Akshardham temple before being separated from them. When rescued by Nirmala Niketan from a house in NOIDA, she had completely lost touch with her family. In such cases, the employers are often complicit in perpetuating and abetting the act of trafficking.
Birna, who also hails from Jharkhand, says, "The placement agency I worked with took away my two daughters and sent me to work in Ludhiana (Punjab). I was not even allowed to talk to them. Finally, they were rescued with the help of the Domestic Workers' Forum."
Many placement agencies are no more than a mobile phone number and are thus extremely difficult to track down. Even under the best of conditions, the agents end up depriving migrant women of a substantial portion of their income. Currently, such agencies are subject to no regulation.
Ill-treatment at the hands of employers is another major concern. Bibyani recalls, "I blindly trusted my employers and asked to hold on to all my wages for safe keeping. Instead, they kept all my wages and even accused me of being a thief."
These issues are yet to capture the public imagination. On the contrary, whenever a domestic worker is found to have committed a crime, the whole class ends up being branded as criminals. Few people pay attention to the root of such cases. In fact, the Haryana police have even launched a questionable drive this April to fingerprint all domestic workers, effectively clubbing them with criminals.
But do the isolated instances of crime committed by some individuals match the routine exploitation to which domestic workers are subjected? Proposing a comprehensive legislation, the Domestic Worker's Bill is a major attempt to address problems of domestic workers. The Bill is being drafted by the National Campaign Committee for the Unorganized Sector Workers (NCCUSW) and Nirmala Niketan, with the support of the National Commission for Women.
The major proposal of this bill is to set up tripartite boards that include representatives of domestic workers, their employers and the government. All domestic workers, their employers and placement agencies will have to register with the board and contribute a designated amount, annually, which will be used as a corpus fund to take care of the many social security needs of workers. "Tribal women even lose their identities in the transit process as their names are often changed. The Board will make sure that there is a complete record of the workers," says Subhash Bhatnagar, Coordinator, NCCUSW.
The board will fix the conditions of work and maintain a record of all domestic workers. It will also evolve a dispute resolution mechanism, look after the health needs of workers, create a safe shelter and help them open bank accounts.
That these proposals are not entirely utopian is evident from the fact that Nirmala Niketan has been providing placement services along similar lines to hundreds of tribal women for eight years now. These women have been able to fight cases of non-payment of wages by employers, bring to book exploitative employers and rescue trafficked children.
Tribal women believe that the legislation will foster a better understanding and accountability between both workers and employers. Most importantly, it is being seen as an important step towards checking the proliferation of unscrupulous placement agencies. The registered placement agencies would be obliged to provide a number of services to both the domestic workers as well as the employers. "The placement agencies do nothing more than placement and replacement of workers for which they charge heavily. This legislation will force them to provide many more services to the workers and their employers," adds Bhatnagar.
The legislation could also check child labour in domestic work. In the absence of any operational mechanism, the 2006 prohibition of child labour in domestic work under the Child Labour Act has been unable to achieve this.
The Domestic Worker's Bill, if passed, will be an important step toward securing the rights of the domestic workers who constitute a large chunk of the unorganised sector workers. But as with all laws, the real test of this legislation will be in its implementation.