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The Helpless

Dwarka lesson: helps are vulnerable without the cover of labour laws

Written by Nirmala Sitharaman |
April 11, 2012 1:34:43 am

Dwarka lesson: helps are vulnerable without the cover of labour laws

It will not be an exaggeration to call our large unorganised sector the underbelly of the Indian economy. Uncared-for sector may be a more appropriate description though. Its workers,mostly semiskilled or unskilled,are engaged in diverse activities — at construction sites,in mines and quarries,fields and farms and in households as domestic helps. They can also be found in local shops and bakeries and in zardozi or carpet-making units. Then there are juveniles — girls and boys — picking rags for a living and so on. And we pause in dilemma whether women and adolescents in brothels should be recognised as workers at all.

The International Labour Organisation reveals that in India 4.75 million workers are employed in households,doing domestic chores. And 72 per cent of this huge number are women,including adolescent girls. The recent case of a 13-year-old girl employed by a doctor couple in Dwarka,Delhi,shows how vulnerable these workers are. For our collective psyche,led to believe that families are the most secure environment,particularly for women,the treatment allegedly meted out to this girl came as a rude shock. Good Samaritan neighbours and an NGO came to the rescue of the girl who could only cry from the balcony of the house in the hustle and bustle of the National Capital Region. Several newspapers in the West and the Far East declared: In India maids need protection and respect. We may ask,didn’t we know? No,we didn’t — or we didn’t care.

Legally speaking,labour laws do not cover domestic helps who are stay-in or part-time workers. Many are migrants to the cities and towns where they work. Based on the nature of the offences committed against them,cases are filed under relevant sections of the IPC,the Juvenile Justice Act or the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act. Rarely and where relevant in a few cases,provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Prevention) Act or the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are invoked. The law permits those who are above 14 years to undertake part-time work. However,the definition of part-time is wide open for interpretation. And,again,who is to monitor if they are only engaged in part-time work?

Most of the domestic helps are brought in from villages through a well-connected network of people. In metros and big cities,where the demand exists,these are called “placement agencies”,often with ever-shifting addresses. They are often not registered and therefore operate unregulated. Some run several parallel agencies at the same time and most leave no trail behind. At the supply end,in villages,there are locals who promise well-paid jobs in “good” households. Ironically,these could be friends or even well-wishers of families whose women or children are brought in as migrant labourers. Between these people and dubious placement agencies,there are a few who operate as couriers — enabling women to reach the city they are destined for. But when in trouble,these women are often incapable of tracing them.

A single NGO in Delhi claims that it rescues 300-350 girls every year. While recalling the Dwarka maid’s case,the NGO also says that several similar cases have come to their notice,some even more violent. These migrant working women are vulnerable to trafficking,sexual exploitation,financial deprivation and forcible confinement. The better-off among these women end up working at least 12 hours a day,30 days a month,several years at a stretch,for an average earning of Rs 6,000 a month.

It is worth mentioning here that a few years ago,the National Human Rights Commission had an eye-opening report focusing on trafficking and it detailed how and from where these vulnerable women get picked up. Highlighting high-risk pockets spread across several districts,the report brought out the many dimensions of the problem.

Viewed from a different prism,we see a paradoxical situation. Indian metros and cities are the biggest consumers of home appliances and consumer durables. Around September last year,a study whose findings were widely reported by the media showed that over the last 10 years there has been a 300 per cent growth in the sale of home appliances. Notwithstanding,the demand for domestic helps is also growing by the day.

Only seven states have passed laws bringing domestic workers under the Minimum Wages Act. But in our country where the government’s flagship programme does not pay minimum wages to those who want “employment guarantee”,such token gestures can’t take us far. Some have pointed out that a home cannot be described as a workplace and,therefore,implementing laws applicable to a workplace,such as labour laws,including minimum wages,may face difficulties. But in this day and age,where professionals are running home offices,the idea of home as workplace cannot be an insurmountable problem. It is also claimed that domestic helps may soon get health insurance coverage for themselves and three other family members. However piecemeal this benefit may be,it is welcome.

There are two issues critical to any debate on the issue of unorganised labour,which seems to be nobody’s baby. One,lack of a well-thought-out regulation regarding unskilled workers. Such a regulation must be applicable across the country and across various spheres of employment — from infrastructure building to household work. It should address issues such as terms of employment,wages,welfare,skill development and insurance. The prevailing system in select sectors,such as construction,is more known for non-compliance by employers in this regard. Two,there is no effective redress mechanism when crimes against workers are alleged. Speedier trials,conviction,relief and rehabilitation are not seen to be done,leaving them even more vulnerable.

Among unorganised labourers,there are about five million working as domestic helps. Although serving the urban middle and upper classes,the problems of these rural poor are affecting hardly any of us.

The writer is BJP’s national spokesperson

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