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Policy on domestic workers could improve conditions in all informal sectors

Policy on domestic workers could improve conditions in all informal sectors

The first-ever national policy for domestic workers,awaiting approval of the Union cabinet,is a relief to all those who have been campaigning for the rights of such workers.

The policy is built on the recommendations of a task force on domestic workers,constituted under pressure from the International Labour Organisation as well as from various other organisations of domestic workers. It provides for the inclusion of domestic workers under the purview of eight core labour laws,the most important being the Minimum Wages Act,1948. There has been a series of elapsed bills and disregarded recommendations dating back to 1972. The state finally seems to be responding to the mounting pressure to recognise a growing sector of women’s employment.

If the policy is approved by the cabinet,the historic struggle to have households recognised as workspaces,and thereby domestic workers as workers,will be won. It will have a fundamental impact on the conditions of workers not only in this sector but also in other informal sectors,many of which involve outsourced and home-based work. It will also create room to question the processes and values that govern domestic labour,women’s subordination and the related devaluation of household work — issues that feminist scholarship has been raising for long. The policy on the anvil will surely initiate the discourse.

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Given the gloomy experience of various states where the Minimum Wages Act has been extended to cover domestic workers,the proposed policy’s potential to improve conditions for domestic workers is still in question. The method of wage calculation in these states is inadequate and arbitrary. Domestic workers organisations have been struggling with the issue of fixing minimum wage and many states have tried to keep it at the lowest possible level. The debate also includes several tricky questions,such as whether wages ought to be time-rated or piece-rated,hourly or weekly,part time or full time,based on house size or persons per household. The other challenges involve over-time,payment in kind,calculation of the amount needed for boarding,medical care and other necessities. There is also a need to account for the divisions of tasks — such as cooking,cleaning and babysitting — which may call for the grading of skills. Some challenges are specific to live-in domestic workers: regulation of agencies,leave,“on call” and rest periods. The efficacy of the policy largely depends on how it tackles these complex issues.

So far,Karnataka,Andhra Pradesh,Tamil Nadu,Bihar and Rajasthan have notified minimum wages for domestic work but there are no norms for implementation or monitoring. Domestic work is known for its multitude of tasks,multiplicity of employers and instability of employment. These factors make enforcement a herculean task. The intimacy between domestic worker and employer,dependence on personal rapport,and the hope that the employer will help in an emergency,add to the difficulties of implementation.

The policy proposes to set up an implementation committee under the labour ministry,comprising representatives from four Central ministries,organisations of employers and domestic workers and other stakeholders. The diverse interests that such a committee would represent and the ambiguities in Centre-state sharing of responsibilities throw up more problems for implementation. Without an organised movement,continuous campaigning and lobbying,the fate of this policy will not be different from those of other informal sector laws.

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In short,though the imminent national policy may not bring in any immediate change in the conditions of domestic workers,the recognition of domestic workers as workers in the home,at par with counterparts in other sectors,is bound to have a significant bearing on the nature of social policy in India.

The writer is senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies,New Delhi,express@expressindia.com

First published on: 26-05-2012 at 12:39:44 am
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