One of my former colleagues in an information technology firm in Bangalore once grumbled, “Our housemaid Jayamma did not come today. She can barely understand how difficult it is if she takes a day off.”

Remarks like hers are not uncommon among people belonging to the middle or upper middle income groups in our country, irrespective of whether they themselves are employed or not. This is primarily because part-time or full time helpers, or domestic workers, are an integral part of almost all urban Indian households that can pay for their services.

The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey done in 2004-2005 estimated that there are around 47 lakh domestic workers in India. These workers invest a lot of their time and energy in cleaning dirty dishes, homes (including washrooms), soiled clothes, residential complexes, educational institutions and other buildings. Many of them cook for the family while some care for children or elders. Sometimes they fetch groceries or other items from neighbourhood stores. In fact, there is an entire range of important tasks that they perform, which makes it possible for their employers to go about their daily lives.

However, although their services are indispensable in a number of middle and higher income households, buildings, offices nationwide, domestic workers – more often derogatorily referred to as housemaids or servants by some people – are rarely accorded the dignity they deserve. Many of them are underpaid and overworked and are unable to pay sufficient attention to children, elders, infirm or others in their own households.

Current situation

“In reality, domestic workers in many cases end up doing more chores than agreed upon, without any change in their salary or other benefits. They also contribute to the GDP! We have been campaigning for dignity and safety for them at their workplace, labour rights, a living wage, a pre-defined quantum of work and other employment benefits, such as regular paid time off,” says Geeta Menon, the founder of Stree Jagruti Samiti, a non-profit located in Bangalore that assists socio-economically backward women and children in distress.

Such workers are often women who hail from low income families and belong to the unorganised workers' sector. In addition to the above challenges, they have to grapple with a general deficit of trust and faith in their integrity.

Domestic workers are inevitably the initial, but usually wrong, suspects of robbery. A few years ago, Revathi, a soft-spoken lady in her forties who is a domestic worker was detained at a police station for a few hours as her employer had falsely accused her of theft. She was released only after a politician in the neighbourhood intervened to assist her.

Many a time it is seen that they are subject to stringent personal security checks on a daily basis as they enter work and are permitted to use only the stairs or designated elevators in some apartment complexes owing to caste and class differences.

Invisible child labourers

Young girls rescued from trafficking and bondage at an Assam home. Pic: Jyotsna Khatry, India Together Files

“Young Adivasi women from Jharkhand, Assam, Bihar and other states are taken to Delhi, Gurgaon and even distant cities by agents under the guise of providing lucrative jobs to work as residential or part-time domestic workers. Some of them are physically and sexually abused and work in extremely exploitative conditions”, says the narrator in a short video produced by the Jharkhand Forum, a support group for Adivasis from the state.

These women do not get enough rest or money, lack support systems and feel alienated due to linguistic and socio-cultural differences. Further, as many of them are new to urban environments, are separated from their families and are geographically scattered, they may not be able to form or join informal social networks. The paucity of numbers and unfamiliarity with each other also act as deterrents to alliances between them.

In a recent incident, a 17-year old girl from the Paharia adivasi community of Jharkhand who was forced into domestic work at the home of a couple in Gurgaon, managed to escape from her employers. Through the timely intervention of individuals, the police and non-profit organizations like the Childline India Foundation, her family was traced.

Another teenage girl from Assam named Usha Thopna who was regularly beaten, chained and confined by a couple employed in an Information Technology firm in Bangalore. She was sent back to her family with the assistance of the Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU) after she escaped. Incidentally, the DWRU is one of the well known unions of domestic workers, registered in 2008. It has a membership of over 4000 in Bangalore and a few other towns such as Gulbarga in northern Karnataka.

Shamim, Mumtaj, Shaheen - DWRU members, Bangalore at an area level discussion. Pic: Pushpa Achanta

However, such positive outcomes as the above are rare as many younger, even under-age girls from the arid districts of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh and Mahboobnagar in Telangana are taken away to perform domestic labour in the homes of wealthy families living in metropolitan cities like Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai.

“Either the employers get the children under the pretext of educating them or they are sent by the elders in their households, who are often landless labourers unable to provide for them. The children stay with the families and are compelled to work from early morning until late night with very little time to sleep, play or study,” revealed a social worker from the Association for Promotion of Social Action (APSA), a reputed non-profit organisation based in Bangalore.

APSA works for the rights of children and also assists in the rescue and rehabilitation of children who are in bonded labour, are trafficked, have run away, and those living alone in public spaces such as streets, railway and bus stations, parks etc.

Adult domestic workers who migrate from other parts of the state or country sometimes manage to form their informal social networks, but do not succeed much in bargaining for fair wages, work timings and duration, paid leave, weekly days off or other benefits such as financial assistance for medical or personal emergencies. Actually, even many domestic workers with a local base have found it a challenge to negotiate for respectful treatment and better working conditions.

National policy for domestic workers

The draft national policy for domestic workers which is awaiting approval of the government of India has provisions to safeguard the interests of this section of the people. It proposes a minimum salary of 9000 rupees per month for 8 hours of work daily, with a day off every week, 15 days of paid leave in a year and maternity leave where applicable.

Apart from that, the policy recommends that domestic workers be provided an opportunity to study, a safe workplace and access to a reliable mechanism to address their grievances. It also makes it mandatory for employers to contribute to social security for the domestic workers. Additionally, the employer is expected to contribute to PF and ESI and also provide accommodation (for residential workers) and meals, especially if the employer is a government employee.

The policy suggests that workers and employers must be able to form support networks that enable them to interact between themselves and to negotiate for their rights and entitlements jointly.

Apart from the above, the policy will require domestic workers to be hired only through placement agencies. It will also compel the employer, domestic worker and the placement agency (as a third party) to have an agreement (signed in the presence of two trade union representatives) regarding the terms and conditions of the employment.

These processes have been suggested to ascertain that the rights of workers are not violated. If the domestic workers are not employed through an agency, they will be considered bonded labourers and their employers will be penalised. However, it is important to note here that there are agencies which exploit both the workers and their employers.

The draft policy (initiated originally by the Indian government in 2007 as one that prioritises the rights of workers) recommends a minimum monthly wage for unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled and highly-skilled categories of domestic workers. It says that highly-skilled and full-time workers should get a salary of at least Rs 9,000 per month.

A news report quotes an unnamed official in the labour ministry stating that the objective of the policy is to empower domestic workers by making them a part of the services industry. However, only a few domestic workers are aware of this policy. One wonders if they or their representatives or allies were even consulted before the policy was drafted.

The labour ministry has a Modular Employable Scheme for domestic workers and trainees with a National Council for Vocational Training (NCVT) certificate. Some private firms also train domestic workers, supposedly.

News reports state that the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship and the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) will train domestic workers using suggestions from residents’ welfare associations. This is apparently because many domestic workers are unlettered migrants who find it tough to manage contemporary urban homes.

However, there are hardly any attempts to provide domestic workers other skills so that they can seek different livelihood or life options.

Dragging our feet

Although domestic workers have been present worldwide for a long time in history, it was only in 2011 that the International Labour Organization resolved to identify domestic work as labour with necessary regulations and provisions like social security, after much campaigning and advocacy.

Closer home, the Indian government included domestic workers under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) or the National Health Insurance Scheme and the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act 2008 much later than other category of workers. However, India has not yet ratified C189 which calls for decent work for domestic workers with dignity and rights.

DWRU members and its allies at a public meet on C189, Bangalore. Pic: Pushpa Achanta

A civil compensation for domestic workers has been excluded from the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2013. The law requires that complaints from such employees must be forwarded to the police station, unlike the provision for other women workers who can report to the Internal Complaints Committee or Local Complaints Committee which is present at the district level.

Bangalore and Pune planned to enforce the registration of all domestic workers at the nearest police station but withdrew the proposal following protests by domestic workers and their allies.

It is often claimed that it is difficult to implement this act for domestic workers since their workplace is typically the home of their employers.

That, however, is hardly an acceptable justification to deny rights to any class of workers, whether they are employed in households, private residential or commercial buildings or organizations. Such practices will only increase their invisibility and perpetuate the likelihood of their harassment, exploitation and abuse – realities that domestic workers continue to battle on a daily basis within a largely insensitive society which uses their very affordable labour but rarely recognises them or treats them well.