Domestic Workers in India: Indispensable yet unrecognised

As the implementation of the anti-worker new labour codes are on the pipeline, the issues of the sectors which have been kept outside the ambit of labour law even in the previous law, needs more serious attention within the trade union movements

Domestic Workers

On the eve of International Domestic Workers Day the article attempts to roughly jot-down a brief legal history of dealing with the question of domestic work. From the change of nomenclature from ‘servant’ to ‘domestic worker’, situated within the macro-economic changes of labour market since late colonial period, domestic workers have travelled a long path and still there is no formal law in India for regulation and resolution of disputes.

Promises since Azadi

India is marking the 75th year of its independence this year. In 2022, we also cross another marker – a decade of India being signatory to the ILO Convention-189. This, something the governments here have resisted to ratify with a law or policy until now. Even with many inadequacies and problems, the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh have taken more initiative to pass national and regional level policies respectively for domestic workers in their countries. In spite of rising numbers of Sri Lankan domestic workers, including international migrants, the governments and employers there also seem resistant to bring out a national level policy or law.

The track record of countries in Latin America seems better historically, with Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and many others increasing and mandating the minimum wages, with mandatory social security registrations. Some of their provisions go back to the 1940s when domestic workers there found recognition in laws related to labour.

Source: ILO, 2016.

At the time of India gaining independence, there was some engagement on whether to recognize domestic workers as workers or not. The sub-committee on labour under the National Planning Committee actually suggested an extension of labour laws to all ‘excluded’ categories of workers, including domestic workers. However, upon citing ‘administrative issues and complexities’, this suggestion was rejected by the committee. A number of private member bills have been introduced in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha since then.

Some of the first bills were introduced by Dalit MPs, who wanted to interlink the agenda of anti-caste struggle with the overwhelming numbers of domestic workers from scheduled castes and other backward communities. It is important to note that way back in the late 1940s, there was recognition that the majority of domestic workers hailed from backward classes and castes. Scholars have argued that even though these initiatives did have an abolitionist undertone, more so because of the overwhelming servitude embedded in the relationship, it prompted more productive discussions on the need of improving working conditions, acknowledging that such a discussion then could be the beginning point.

A series of strikes in the 1950s also speeded up the efforts to enact a law for domestic workers rights. Two other private bills were introduced in 1972 and 1977. Interestingly, all these bills have listed the same set of demands that is being raised by domestic worker associations and unions even today, signalling the absolute apathy that has been the establishment’s approach since then. The fact that the Indian Parliament then only reached consensus to make a national registry of domestic workers instead of passing a bill stands hollow given that even today, the government has no official records of the numbers of domestic workers in the country. Important to note here is that both the bills were presented by a SC member of the BJP then, Hukam Chand Kachwai in the aftermath of strikes by domestic workers in Bombay city then. A series of strikes in the 1980s in Pune and initiatives in other cities like Karnataka led to the formation of Molkarin Sanghatane as well as Gruhu Karmika Sangha in these states respectively. Unions were also formed in Goa, Delhi and Calcutta. This was followed by introduction of private bills again in 1989 as well as 1991 by politicians associated with the Congress party, the Janata Dal as well as socialist party.

Source (TW): @UnionSGU

At the turn of the millennium, India still did not have a law for domestic workers irrespective of various efforts by unions, politicians and activists. It is important to note that earlier domestic workers unions had predominantly male membership before the overwhelming feminization that the sector has undergone in the neoliberal era. Owing to a host of reasons – including agrarian distress driven migration, and shifts in migration patterns has led to this overwhelming shift to female domestic workers in the country. In the 1981 census, it was reported that 60% of domestic workers in urban India were women. Even though regional variations had been strong, especially the states of south reporting more women employed as domestic workers, a skill-based division of labour continued to persist. And men employed then, especially as cooks, reported higher wages than women. While women were mostly employed as ayahs, maids and for utensil cleaning, men were employed as drivers, gardeners and dhobis. Women’s movement was also making important interventions for regulating the working conditions for domestic workers, through its’ engagements through Towards Equality (1974) and Shramshakthi (1988), two important reports that it was commissioned to engage with the status of women, in relation to work, well-being and education.

Domestic Workers

2008-2019-A decade of further illusions 

Due to the overwhelming shift towards feminization and interlinkages of trafficking and domestic work globally, there has been pressure on international organisations like the ILO to reinitiate its discussion on rights of domestic workers. As an earlier abolitionist utopia which believed that as the economy expanded, domestic work would cease to be an employment option for women and that they would be co-opted into dignified work proved wrong and reality pointed to the expansion of domestic work as a major source of employment for women globally, these discussions were inevitable. In India, starting with the migration of women from Kerala to the middle-east to international migrations streams predominated by women from the global south for paid domestic work all over western Europe and the middle-east prompted further discussions and underscores the need of protective measures. Many incidents of sexual abuse, physical violence, captivity and harassment of domestic workers were brought into limelight by activists in host countries in these regions.

In the case of India, a series of anti-poor middle-class activism organised by the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) also propelled worker associations to initiate demands for regulations and registration of RWAs and agencies respectively. In the absence of any formal mechanisms, today networked relations between the local administration-police and RWAs play the most arbitrary role in the work lives of domestic workers. They are probably the only set of workers who are required to be ‘verified’ by the local police, who face constant suspicion-distrust at the workplace and whose wages are often determined by a body like the RWA.

A series of slum demolitions in big cities throughout the country also pointed to the precariousness with which majority of the domestic workers are employed in our big cities, forcefully removed often without a notice and ‘rehabilitated’ miles away from their workplaces.

Two laws in the last two decades – The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 as well as the POSH ACT, 2013 – recognised domestic workers as workers. Both explicitly discuss domestic workers as workers, by elaborating on working conditions as well as defining the home as a workplace respectively. Even though discussions and debates during these legislations have foregrounded the need for a separate legislation, especially to comprehensively address the complexities of the sector, it continues to be lost in notifications, draft laws by unions or even of formal government bodies and in private bills of 2016 and 2017, amidst the cacophony of competing party systems and vote bank politics.

What now? The promise that evades

Clearly, the promise of a national level law or a policy seems to be an ever-evasive strategy undertaken by the government to domestic worker unions and civil society groups. Even though the initial draft of the Code on Social Security mentioned domestic workers, the final draft that was passed, the SS Code does not name domestic workers as recipients of social security welfare measures. Unions and civil society organisations have also questioned the complete break-down of the labour law regime since the passing of the anti-people labour codes. Platformization of the sector is raising further important confusions on the definition of a gig worker and domestic worker. Every now and then, there is a press release or a notification, like this promise and admission in 2019, where the government admitted that there is no data of domestic workers in the country, and another declaration of a survey in 2021. The only pittance available now are the schemefied set of rights given to informal workers in the country. Nine states have notified Domestic Workers in the scheduled employment list of Minimum Wages, even when its implementation is questionable. As the implementation of the anti-worker new labour codes are on the pipeline and trade unions are opposing it, the issues of the sectors which have been kept outside the ambit of labour law even in the previous law, needs more serious attention within the trade union movements.

References:

1) Sonal Sharma. “Domestic workers, class hegemony and the Indian state: a sociological perspective.”  South Asian History and Culture (2022).

2) Nicola Cunnigham Armacost. “Domestic Workers in India- A case for legislative action.’ Journal of the Indian Law Institute Vol 36, no. 1 (Jan-March 1994): 53-63.

Arya Thomas ([email protected]) is an activist of Sangrami Gharelu-kamgar Union (SGU)

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