Where are the May Day benefits for India's domestic help?
Indian maids, unlike their counterparts in North American and European nations, are deprived of any kind of job security. They are not entitled to minimum wage and paid leaves that women domestic workers get in other developed countries. Owing to the invisible and scattered nature of their work, performed within the precincts of a private house, it is extremely difficult to collectivise and organise these women into trade unions and women’s associations. It is equally challenging to monitor their work conditions and implement welfare schemes.
The biggest challenge lies in putting an appropriate productive value to the mundane and repetitive, yet essential housework that permits other economic activities to be performed without a glitch. Unfortunately, domestic chores and unpaid care-labour have always been thought not as work rather an obligation of the women folk. This nonchalant attitude towards all activities that constitute running the household poses a barrier in getting paid domestic work its due remuneration and recognition.
A recent survey of 600 women domestic workers in the east Indian city of Kolkata revealed unnegotiated subjects at the time of hiring between the employer and the maid. While the list of tasks and wages account for 26 to 27 per cent of dialogues, among the subjects not discussed at all during time of hiring are: holidays, bonus, wage increments, terms and conditions of pay-cut, food and rest periods. This has allowed increased threats of job loss, termination of services without compensations and additional workload without extra payments. Any compensation above the negotiated salary is dependent on the whim and mercy of the employer.
Among the subjects not discussed at all during time of hiring are: holidays, bonus, wage increments, terms and conditions of pay-cut, food and rest periods
On an average, women workers have been earning a meagre amount of Rs 2000 to 3000 per month. This compensation comes after toiling for around 6 to 8 hours or more per day in 4 to 5 employers' houses. Working conditions are appalling where women maids are not allowed to use toilets or are forced to use a pay and use toilet outside the workplace. Often food and first-aid are not provided by the employers, and maids are also denied rest time. Wage deductions are rampant with 66 per cent women getting no paid leave even when the maid is absent due to sickness.
Caste distinctions and class discriminations subject the domestic workers to inhumane and undignified treatment. Reportedly, the workers are given food in separate utensils, sometimes served stale food, not allowed to sit on the table, addressed by derogatory names such as ‘bai’, ‘kaamwali, ‘naukrani’ etc. False theft allegations, physical and mental abuse and lack of workplace safety are common occurrences, especially, among the live-in workers. Domestic work is stigmatised as ritually unclean and impure. Such work is highly undervalued, attributed to its unskilled character and, thus, is underpaid.
Persistent efforts by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has shaped the parameter of decent work, improving the lives and livelihood of workers. Conceptually ‘decent work’ entails dignity, equality, fair income and safe working conditions. But amidst the global awareness on the need of safeguarding worker’s rights and bridging gender equality, it is disappointing that India has still not ratified ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that was adopted on 16th June 2011.
India has still not ratified ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that was adopted on 16th June 2011.
Though Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat state legislatures have passed Minimum Wages Act for domestic workers, there is urgent need of an inclusive and holistic union legislation specifically for paid domestic workers in India. The Regulation of Employment Agencies Act 2007 that lays the guidelines regarding licensing and mode of operation of private placement agencies require stricter amendments. Also, the scope of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (2008) needs to be widened to include paid domestic workers within its domain.
Most importantly, the criteria of ‘work’ must be reconsidered and reformulated in order to understand the volume of women’s contribution in the economy. As the national statistics, such as National Sample Survey (NSS) and Census of India indicate, paid domestic work market in India is witnessing an overcrowding of cheap women labourer due to an economic downturn in many backward states. Thus, with increasing proportions of women entering this occupation, there would arise conflicting interests, deprivation and greater marginalisation of women workers.
Domestic workers, understandably, come from socially and economically disadvantageous sections. Along with limited financial means, they lack skill, training, and any alternative means of employment. It is, therefore, imperative for the welfare state to take necessary steps in accordance with decent work directives of ILO. Towards safeguarding the interests of one of India's most vulnerable group, the country's legislature must coordinate with relevant non-governmental organisations working in the field.
Without a comprehensive plan directed towards ameliorating the exploitation plaguing our domestic workforce, India's democratic aspirations will remain largely unfulfilled.