The home truth

A law for domestic workers,as in Brazil,would only deepen the problem in India

Written by Neetha N. | Published: April 11, 2013 3:14 am

A law for domestic workers,as in Brazil,would only deepen the problem in India

A constitutional amendment in Brazil has ensured that domestic workers there will be recognised on par with other workers. Domestic work,which employs about 6.6 million in Brazil,is the third-most popular work category in the country. The amendment,which came into effect from April 3,states that domestic workers will have an eight-hour work day,overtime pay and other rights,including employer-paid daycare as enjoyed by the rest of the workforce. Live-in workers can work for a maximum of 44 hours a week. They will have bonuses for overtime and a special rate for night work. The amendment also provides for a domestic workers’ fund,sustained by employer contribution and 8 per cent of monthly pay. The fund will be used in the event of compulsory redundancy,death and other contingencies.

The impact of such policy initiatives is critical as it could determine the pace and extent of regulation in the sector in other developing countries. Such legislation would radically change how domestic workers and their work are valued,recognised and protected. It is critical to shake gender discrimination in this sector and the devaluation of household work. The law has definitely addressed women workers’ rights and interests. But the biggest challenge is to ensure that the employment prospects of workers are not affected. Doubts have been raised on the long-term employment impact of the law,as many families who employ domestic workers may not be able to afford them any more. Estimates say the cost of having a domestic worker in Brazil could rise by anything between 18 per cent and 40 per cent,depending on the working arrangements.

The campaign for the regulation of domestic work and its inclusion in labour laws is a longstanding one in India as well. But how distant is a legislation of this kind in the Indian context,where informalisation is the key to growth? Given the fate of the policy on domestic workers,which has been on the anvil for more than a year,and the history of “legal” neglect of this sector,it remains a dream. Pressure by organisations of domestic workers drove the legislation in Brazil. Unless similar organisations assert themselves here,the state is not going to respond to the demands of domestic workers. State intervention would remain limited to the token extension of minimum wages and the inclusion of domestic workers in the health insurance scheme,Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna. There will be no great change in the overall approach to the issues concerning these workers.

It is also pertinent to ask what change such legislations can guarantee domestic workers when there is such lax enforcement of labour laws. Informality is the key to this sector — in terms of tasks,work relations,multiplicity of employers and so on. It is very possible that such legislations could remain only on paper and be undermined by informalisation. This is feared even in Brazil,where many domestic workers have already expressed readiness to conceal hours of work and other terms of their contract. If this is the case in Brazil,which has a strong union presence,what will it be like in India,where only a negligible fraction of domestic workers are connected to associations or unionised? Employment relations here intersect with personal relations,which in turn are determined by caste,class and gender. This makes the enforcement of any legislation in the sector even more complex. That is clear from the experiences of the states where minimum wage legislation has been extended to domestic work.

Protecting employment is the biggest challenge,especially since this is the only source of work for many women in our country. Regulating the sector would definitely benefit those who find placement. But this might become more difficult as many lower-middle-class and even middle-class households may find it difficult to afford domestic workers. In the event of job loss,if there are alternative avenues of employment,women could migrate to better jobs. But in a country where job opportunities are shrinking as the population expands,such legislation could only aggravate the problems of female employment. Further,many women prefer domestic work over other options in the informal sector,as they can work closer to their homes,work hours are more flexible and may be distributed so that they can balance their household demands with their job.

Although progressive legislations are a positive move,it is equally important to ensure alternative employment opportunities for such workers. Without those,such legislation would further informalise the sector. The state should simultaneously address care work demands in households from all economic levels. That would free many women from household work and enable them to make choices in the labour market. Given the low and declining participation of women in employment,regulations within the present structure could only deepen some of the problems,leading to an overall decline in the status of women.

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

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