Domestic workers must be brought within the purview of labour laws.
The extreme abuse and mistreatment of domestic workers is becoming a part of day-to-day city life,as the recent cases of brutality in Delhi show. This is not to suggest that such incidents never occurred before,but the intensity and scale of such brutal violence are definitely becoming worse. This is alarming,given that there has been a substantial increase in the number of domestic workers. How does one explain this and the poor working conditions of domestic workers?
An important aspect of this problem is the changing nature of urban households and family relations. Though present-day domestic work arrangements are employment based,they are still semi-feudal and patriarchal. This,when combined with household power relations,can result in complex outcomes,including extreme oppression. Domestic workers are often witnesses to the private life of household members,and thereby they become the object and subject of their employers moods and frustrations.
On the other hand,the increasing incidence of brutality also indicates the absence of any regulatory intervention in the sector. In all the recent cases,the offence was largely framed as a criminal one. It is disturbing that there is little debate on employment relations,wages,working hours and other conditions of work. These cases cannot be taken up as labour rights violations as the sector falls outside the purview of labour laws. The only labour law that was drawn on in one of the recent cases was the child labour act,which prohibits the employment of children in domestic work. But proving age is not an easy matter and is always subject to controversy. The bonded labour act was also invoked in some cases,but corroborating evidence of any loan or advance during employment is difficult to gather. The penalty for violating the act is also meagre.
The ILO convention on Domestic Work,2011,led the debate on potential policy interventions. The disregard of the state for the issues of domestic workers is evident from the history of the proposed interventions,beginning with the Domestic Workers (Registration,Social Security and Welfare) Bill,2008. The bill included provisions for the compulsory registration of all domestic workers,the establishment of a welfare fund to which workers and employers would contribute,the registration of placement agencies and the regulation of working conditions. It also stipulated punishments for violation. The bill was,however,set aside after a few months of its initiation. Due to the increased national and international pressure,a task-force on domestic workers was constituted by the government in 2009. The draft national policy on domestic workers,a byproduct of the task-force,was publicised with much fanfare. It aimed at bringing domestic workers under the purview of the existing labour laws such as the Minimum Wages Act,the Employees Compensation Act and the Trade Unions Act and thus provide them all the rights and protections available to other workers. The recommendation of the NAC made it appear to be a serious intervention. But it is yet another symbol of the states neglect of the concerns of domestic workers. The government deferred the policy in May 2013,after a cabinet meeting where differing views and apprehensions were raised.
Given that there is no Central legislation,it is proper for the government of Delhi,the city from where most of these cases have been reported,to enact laws to protect workers. However,there has been no serious attempt to regulate the sector in the city,though the chief minister has acknowledged the importance of fixing minimum wages for domestic work in a few public meetings. Many state governments in the country have extended minimum wage protection to domestic workers for some time now. Pushed by the high court on a PIL filed by an NGO,the Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill was drafted by the labour department in 2012. The draft bill was widely criticised for its inadequate understanding and representation of the issues. Thus,discussions abound,but progress in enacting or amending legislation is absent,reiterating the apathy of the state in providing legal protection to domestic workers.
In the absence of legislation that recognises domestic workers as workers and employers homes as workplaces,the condition of domestic workers will not improve and many more extreme incidents are bound to take place. Any legal regulation is bound to have a multiplier effect in terms of a workers status. More than an actual change in working conditions,this would give the domestic worker the status and dignity of a worker and create a legal environment where any labour rights violation would be viewed seriously,thereby checking employers behaviours and attitudes.
The writer is senior fellow at the Centre for Womens Development Studies,New Delhi.