From Helpers to Workers: Status of Domestic Workers in India

From Helpers to Workers: Status of Domestic Workers in India

Law | Sep 20, 2018 / by Sravya Vemuri
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A few thousand domestic workers in India marched with placards, shouting slogans near Parliament on the 2nd of August, 2018. They were demanding legal provisions to secure their rights while the government has been planning to replace more than 30 labour laws with a few codes. For instance, the Draft Labour Code on Social Security aims to universalise social security so that the definition of employee covers all kinds of work, yet unions have expressed displeasure at some of its provisions. For instance, all workers have to be registered under the said act to avail social security benefits. Considering that a person would be called a ‘worker’ only if he/she works for a particular period of time in a year, the bill might exclude thousands of domestic workers. Also, experts and activists are of the opinion that these codes will further deteriorate the existing legal protection extended to domestic workers in India.

Why they matter?

Domestic workers are not recognised by society as ‘workers’ in the first place. While many forms of labour activity take place outside the domestic domain, domestic workers perform their duties in the household. Quite an unconventional place as it is, the domain of household is still not accepted as a workplace. Though labour laws exist, it becomes very complex to administer their working in the household sector. Unlike other jobs, there are no streamlined descriptions that can be made a part of the contract. The fact that there are 4.2 million domestic workers (according to the latest data of NSSO 61st Round) and their labour is not computed is appalling.

This sector plays an important role particularly in the lives of women. First, it is evident from data that a higher percentage of domestic workers are women. This helps them in gaining economic autonomy. Secondly, more than 50 percent of working age women in India are not available for work due to responsibilities around domestic chores (ILO Report, 2014). These works including fetching water, taking care of the elderly and collecting firewood are also seen as unpaid care work, reproductive work and so on. Hiring domestic workers will ease the burden on women who wish to work outside the household. It is the ‘invisible’ labour of domestic workers that enables men and women to go about their work life.

Problems of invisibility

Domestic workers are faced with a plethora of problems in their workplaces. Tripti Lahiri, in her book ‘Maid in India’, writes that there was nearly 120 percent rise in the demand for domestic workers in the years following liberalisation in India. The ever increasing demand for domestic workers in private households did little to secure them their rights and privileges.

Under payments continue to be a problem for domestic workers. One can attribute this mainly to the perception that domestic work is not real work. There is gender-based pay gap discrimination in domestic work too. Cleaning, washing, cooking, laundry among others are construed to be predominantly a woman’s natural work. This results in undervaluation of the work itself. Domestic work is also seen as ‘unproductive’, because it is not directly generating economic gains to the households. Meanwhile, their contribution to national economy becomes invisible. According to a survey conducted in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, domestic worker positions are paid on average less than Rs.6, 500 per month.

Discrimination on grounds of caste is evident too. Undignified work is assigned to the domestic workers because they to a particular class hitherto considered being ‘lower caste’. Practices of untouchability have a physiological bearing in the minds of workers. After all, they are ‘workers’ too. The work is caste-determined, for instance, ‘upper caste’ women are employed in works like cooking while ‘lower caste’ women are employed in cleaning washrooms (according to a report by Centre for Workers’ Management, Chennai).

Unregulated working hours have done enough damage to their lives already. There is no fixed number of hours, and even if there are any the rules aren’t considered by the employers. Often, they are made to work overtime, with no benefits at all. Absence of any job security even after working between 8 hours and 18 hours a day is a dismal condition.

Sexual violence is even more prevalent in this sphere. It is women and children employed in households who are more vulnerable to sexual assaults and harassments. In the fear of losing their jobs, they sometimes have no option but to stay calm.  Violence against domestic workers not only threatens the law and order, but also curbs their fundamental rights.

Migrant workers have to face a whole range of other problems too. Most of the domestic workers in India are migrant workers, moving both within and out of India. Since these workers lack an organic link to the place they work in, they are rendered even more vulnerable. Unfamiliarity of location, inability to speak in language of the place they work in and being far away from support systems of family creates barriers to their mobility too. Migrant workers, however have an edge over others as they can hide their caste identity, therefore avoiding caste-based discrimination.

Although the Minimum Wage Act of 2008 entitles every registered domestic worker for paid leave and a weekly off, workers do not receive these benefits from their employers. They are either fired or made to work under worse conditions if they try to raise voices against their employers. Considering the rising supply of domestic workers, it is hard to find another job once fired. Child labour, discrimination on grounds of religion and race still haunt domestic workers in India.

From helpers to workers

There are laws in India that protect the interests of domestic workers.  For instance, the Domestic Workers Act of 2008 was introduced to regulate the payment and working conditions of household workers. It also addressed the issues of trafficking of women and exploitation of workers. However, it is the individual states in India that govern its implementation, leading to lack of uniformity in the guidelines across the country. Besides, India is a signatory to the Convention 198-C of International Labour Organisation that deals with safeguarding the laws of domestic workers. But India has not ratified it yet. Ratifying the convention implies that the provisions of the same are included in the domestic laws too. Other acts like Social Security Act of 2008 and Sexual Harassment at workplace act (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act provide protection to domestic workers in India. Yet, there is a need for a comprehensive and uniform legislation for safeguarding the rights of domestic workers. A draft bill was made under the pressure of National Platform for Domestic Workers in 2017 that still remains to be a draft. With provisions like setting up of welfare boards, registration of workers in welfare boards, accidental insurance coverage, health coverage and pensions, the draft bill is close to an ideal act. The government can also take help of NGOs and domestic workers’ unions in drafting the bill. Making them a part of the policy making process is essential to address their concerns.

It is high time that we stopped calling our Bhais ‘helpers’ instead of ‘workers’. A rights-based approach to this problem will help understanding it even better. Domestic workers also have their rights, protected by the constitution and various other legislations. A rights-based approach will condemn the present scenario where their rights are abrogated in every possible way. Domestic work is a work like no other and should be considered as a work like any other. Treating domestic workers with dignity, respect and professionalism forms an essential part of this transformation. This will also have positive implications on gender pay gap and gendered discrimination. We are also in dire need for initiating discussions about domestic workers in India. It is saddening to know that such discussions are seldom heard of, be it in the parliament or at the household level. Enacting the laws is not the solution, effective implementation and inspections only can solve the problem. Let them work with dignity. Let them live with respect. Let them enjoy their rights. Let them not bear the brunt of parochialism. Bearing in mind the need to recognise domestic workers and their dignity, it is high time that we discussed about them on larger platforms and safeguarded their rights.


WIEGO law project, November 2014, Domestic Workers’ Laws and Legal Issues in India

Employment and Social Protection Task team, 2012, Work like no other, Work like any other  pp 1-8

International Labour Organisation, 2013, Domestic Workers Across the World: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection, pp 7-15, pp 56-59

Lahiri, T., 2017, Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity inside Our Homes

The Wall Street Journal, Pokharel K. & Bellman E., 3rd May, 2016, How Much Do Indians Pay Their Many Domestic Helpers?  pp 1-2

Image Credit: The New York Times

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Written By Sravya Vemuri

Currently pursuing bachelor's degree in political science and economics from University of Delhi, Sravya likes to write on issues that matter.

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