Skip to main content

My home, my maid's prison: The state of domestic workers in India

Because of their lower social-economic status, the physical and sexual abuse of housemaids goes largely unreported as is clear from the Mahagun Moderne incident. In photo: A child domestic worker in Kolkata, India. Photograph: (WION)

Others Delhi, India Jul 13, 2017, 10.23 AM (IST) Neetha N.

The number of female domestic workers in cities across India has been increasing rapidly since 1999. Yet, domestic workers occupy little or no place in most of the contemporary discourse on economic development. Domestic workers do not have the required collectivities or associations or popular spokespersons to voice their concerns. This is not to claim that domestic workers as a category are completely ignored in public discourse. It does figure in academic circles sporadically as a growing category of female employment, and their reference in intervention programmes is largely limited to their status as migrant workers. However, they are largely absent from state policy – be it labour laws or social policy. 

In Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan domestic work is now included under the minimum wages notification.
×

Thanks to collective struggles, some interventions have come through in a few states. In Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan domestic work are now included in the minimum wages notification. In Tamil Nadu, domestic work is added to the scheduled list under the Manual Workers Act (Regulation and Employment and Conditions of Work Act), 1982. However, even in Karnataka, which is the first state to fix minimum wages for domestic workers and has a strong organisational backing of domestic workers, the legislative benefits are yet to reach a large chunk of workers. The politics at work is evident in its removal from the scheduled list in 1993 (after a year of its inclusion) till 2004 when it finally reappeared in the schedule. Apart from these sporadic interventions, national level interventions are yet to begin in this sector. 

Size, Growth and Characteristics 

The importance of the sector in our economy can be gauged from a careful analysis of its size and growth. Private households with employed persons who are largely domestic workers are next to only education in terms of the share in female employment in the service sector. The percentage of domestic workers in total female employment in the service sector increased from 11.8 per cent in 1999-2000 to 27.1 per cent in 2004-05, with a phenomenal increase in the number of workers by about 2.25 million in a short span of five years. The data shows a feminisation of the service with the share of female workers increasing sharply over the period. 

The increased demand for domestic workers has also been related to the reduction in provision of public social services, which has forced families to depend on market oriented care services to cope with childcare and other domestic duties, especially when women members are employed outside the home. 
×

Domestic work in itself has undergone tremendous changes. Domestic workers used to be attached to one single household and undertook one or more work such as cleaning or cooking. In the modern system of domestic work, this has changed and a large number of workers undertake heterogeneous work in different households. Thus a domestic worker may do the cooking in one house and only cleaning work in another. This system of “part-time domestic work” is typically associated with the phenomenon of urbanisation and the emergence of modern nuclear middle-class families. The social value of the labour of the domestic servants has assumed a different orientation, with a large number of women seeking a job outside the home; and the comparatively limited capacity of large sections of the middle class to employ and patronise full-time domestics. The increased demand for domestic workers has also been related to the reduction in the provision of public social services, which has forced families to depend on market-oriented care services to cope with childcare and other domestic duties, especially when women members are employed outside the home. 

The patterns of urbanisation in urban centres have ensured the existence of pockets of urban slums that service the surrounding middle and upper-class areas in a variety of ways, and domestic service is one of the most important provisions thus rendered. Interstate migrant women account for a majority of the domestic workers. Growing demand for domestic workers has also resulted in a regular flow of domestic helps from particular pockets of out-migration areas. With the increase in the number of workers and the demand for domestics, the occupation has got segregated into a number of differentiated tasks. The preference for domestic work among poor women is documented in many studies. Poor women find it convenient to be employed as domestic labour in the surrounding residential areas. Since it is convenient for them to shoulder their own double burden if work is in the close vicinity, and especially if it permits them a few hours at home in between the shifts. Although it is definitely not unskilled work, there are fewer barriers to entry, and many of them perceive it as an extension of work done in one’s own home, although in a different socio-cultural situation. 

Though the sector occupies a central role in women’s employment, there is no uniformity in the level of wages, hours of work, number of working days, nature of payment and other conditions of work. Domestic work occurs in isolated, largely non-regulated and privatised environment and most domestic workers negotiate job terms and pay on an individual basis. The pay of the domestic workers is often determined by the task performed, the locality, their social status and other labour market conditions. Studies have shown that there is clearly a hierarchy among domestic workers in terms of type of work done that is reflected in the wage structure. Total emoluments for cleaning work in urban areas ranges from Rs 100 to Rs 400 per month for tasks such as washing clothes, cleaning utensils, sweeping and cleaning floors. On the other hand, childcare fetches monthly wages in the range of Rs 500- 1,000, and cooking is the best paid in the range of Rs 500-1,500 per month. Further, the number of members in the employer family (for washing clothes, utensils and cooking) and the area of the dwelling (sweeping, mopping, etc) also affect the wage rate. 

The conditions of work and lower socioeconomic status of these workers gives sufficient pointers to the possibility of physical and sexual violence, which is largely under-reported
×

The working hours of domestic workers also vary. Research on domestic workers suggests that many workers suffer from occupational health problems especially backaches, joint pains and allergies to detergents and other cleaning agents  However, there is no provision for social security in terms of provident fund, health insurance or pension. The conditions of work and lower socioeconomic status of these workers gives sufficient pointers to the possibility of physical and sexual violence, which is largely under-reported. 

Commercialisation of Domestic Work 

Domestic service is still a highly personalised service. However, the market possibilities of the sector have affected the organisation of the service drastically, posing further challenges in the regulation of this sector. The huge amount of commission involved and the absence of any regulation are the major attractions. During the past few years, there has been an upsurge in the number of agencies supplying domestic workers, especially in metropolitan cities. As per broad estimates, there are over 800-1,000 placement agencies in the capital city of Delhi itself. 

Since agencies differ considerably in terms of functioning, doubts are often raised about the genuineness and method of functioning of these organisations. The tribal pockets (of the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa) are often the hubs of such recruitment from where a large number of women (especially unmarried girls) are mobilised. Single women migrants depend on these agencies, as they are unaware of the dispersed employment opportunities in the city. The linguistic barrier of the migrant is another factor, which makes the role of a middleman or agency inevitable. The existence of various layers of recruitment agents and the system of advance payments adds to the complexity. It is widely documented that a large number of agencies take undue advantage of the illiteracy and ignorance of these workers and non-payment of wages and the element of forced/bonded labour are also rampant. Trafficking for domestic work and the possibility of sexual exploitation of domestics (by the middlemen, agents and employers) are among the concerns often raised in this context. Thus, in reality, there are regular traumatic incidences in which domestic workers are exploited in the cities by agencies as well as employers – a trend that is sure to increase in the future unless appropriate policy interventions take place soon. 

Need for Regulation 

Lakhs of women and girls turn to domestic work as one of the few options available to them in order to provide for themselves and their families. This definitely poses serious concerns in terms of women’s work and the larger issue of women’s agency and empowerment. The relocation of work from public to domestic, which are governed by personalised service conditions and are often oppressive, pose serious challenges. The domestic worker has an ambiguous status and remains “a special type of worker who is neither the member of the family nor an employee in the public sphere enjoying the full advantages of socialised work. 

Domestic work poses challenges in terms of regulation in the context of its fragmented nature, different tasks and a multiplicity of employers. The most critical issue is that of the workplace being private homes which makes it difficult to intervene posing major challenges for monitoring and regularisation. The emergence of middlemen and agents further complicates the scenario. Notwithstanding this, instead of guaranteeing better employment conditions, governments have systematically denied them key labour protections extended to other workers. Given a history of neglect of issues of women workers, in general, it is not surprising that domestic workers have been excluded from even a basic labour law like the Minimum Wages Act. The first attempt to regularise domestic work, i.e., the drafting of the Domestic Workers’ Bill (Conditions of Service) 1959 is now a matter of history.  

Some steps have been taken by the government both at the national and state levels to protect the rights which are largely haphazard and arbitrary. Some state governments have opted to include domestic workers under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. However, they are still outside the scheduled list of employment under the Minimum Wages Act in many states, including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Enforcement is least in priority in states where domestic workers are covered under the Act, with exemptions for employers on record keeping and restricting inspections in states where unions were actively involved. India is still to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic workers.  

No other worker in the country is at the mercy of so many diverse interests groups in order to claim their eligible entitlement, which reaffirms the states’ apathy and neglect, deliberate or otherwise, rooted in the patriarchal and gendered conceptualisations of domestic work.
×

After much lobbying, domestic workers were brought within the ambit of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 and Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2013. Welfare boards exist in a few states that partly address some of the social security dimensions though actual operation and coverage is an issue.  The most acclaimed inclusions of domestic workers under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) and Employees’ State Insurance Scheme (ESI) clearly symbolises the state’s approach to this sector. A discriminatory approach to a specific category of workers is noticeable in both these interventions. No other worker in the country is at the mercy of so many diverse interests groups in order to claim their eligible entitlement, which only reaffirms the states’ apathy and neglect, deliberate or otherwise, rooted in the patriarchal and gendered conceptualisations of domestic work.  
 
The latest intervention in the sector at the national level – the national policy on domestic work, the discussion of which started in 2009, is yet to see light with many drafts appearing and disappearing. The fate of this policy, which was drafted in 2012 after much pressure and lobbying from national and international organisations, is still unclear, despite its revision in 2015 and the statement of the labour minister in March 2016 that the matter is “under active consideration.” It is a matter of shame that even on 11th of this month, the day when the domestic worker was kept captive in NOIDA by the employer, a stakeholders meeting was held by the Ministry of Labour and Employment and ILO in Delhi to discuss yet another draft policy.   

(The writeup is based on an earlier article published in the EPW)

 

Neetha N.

The writer is senior fellow at the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi.

Show Comments
  • delete