Households as Workspaces: Towards the Safety of Women Domestic Workers in India

by Mouli Banerjee

On April 28, workplaces around the world commemorated workers who have suffered illness or injury and even death, due to workplace-related hazards and incidents. It is recognized as the “International Day of Mourning” for workers, or what International Labour Organisation has declared the ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’. Yet, on the occasion of days like this, one must keep in mind the workers who do not get sufficiently mourned, whose rights are not safe enough and whose workplaces are barely recognised. The elusive safety and security at purportedly “unconventional” spaces of work, like the household, thus deserve special scrutiny.

Paid domestic work, around the world, is not sufficiently recognised or regulated, consequently exposing such workers to vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are rooted in the unequal societal structures. One on hand, there is a sense of servitude attached to domestic work, derived from a historically feudal understanding of power relations.  On the other hand, there is an assumption that domestic work and the domestic space itself are mostly feminine, which results in it not being seen at par with other male-dominated work. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) data suggests that globally, as many as 53 million people are employed as domestic workers [1]. The economic vulnerability of the work opens up all domestic workers to risks of psychological and physical abuse.  Given that about 83% of all domestic workers around the world are women [2], these risks are magnified for them.

This reluctance to acknowledge the household as a workplace is misogynist and dangerous. It exposes women engaged in domestic work to slavery, sexual harassment of various degrees, and other human rights abuses. However, in context of the safety and health in workspaces, it is important to recognize that such women lack safety at work not only because of their gender. The vulnerability of women domestic workers in India, similar to global patterns, not just is rooted in the nature of the work itself but also directly related to the ways in which Indian societies view structures of caste, class and gender.  Women who work in other households, mainly engaged in menial labour, mostly belong to a lower economic group. Class and often caste hierarchies coincide, for women in domestic work, making them the marginalised “Other” women on multiple levels. Thus, they become the less important workers of the economy, and their workplace loses out in priority, to other conventional workspaces, when it comes to protecting the safety and security of workers.

The problem with the way the government has dealt with the rights of domestic workers in India lies precisely in this- that while the laws recognise such women as vulnerable to sexual abuse at their workplaces, it does a poor job of recognising domestic work as work in itself. By failing to recognise the fact that the economic insecurity suffered by such women contributes to the risks to personal security that such work entails, the laws in place in India fail to provide for the safety and health of these women at their workplaces.   

At the very outset, one must note that globally, almost 10.5 million domestic workers are actually children [3]. In India too, children are forced to work as domestic help, and feed into the vicious cycle of physical and sexual abuse. Yet, while such employment of children in India is criminalised, our national labour laws do not recognise adult domestic work at all. Domestic workers are excluded from the Factories Act 1948 (no. 63 of 1948) and the Minimum Wages Act, No. 11 of 1949, for example. It is up to state governments to issue notifications on minimum wages for domestic workers, but only a few states, like Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan have issued such notifications [4].  Domestic workers, thus, fall within the category of unorganised labour, and this further lack of regulating mechanisms also means added difficulty in collating substantial nation-wide data on women engaged in such work. Locally concentrated studies by several non-governmental organisations suggest problems such as lack of specified work hours, irregular payment or even non-payment of wages, lack of holidays, added with verbal and often physical abuse. This economic insecurity also is a deterrent when it comes to speaking up against instances of physical and sexual abuse, for fear of being unemployed.

The lackadaisical approach of the legislature towards this is further evident in the fact that domestic workers have been included in the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 (Act 33 of 2008) only after an intervention by the Supreme Court [5]. Again, their inclusion within the purview of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, was not without struggle and even within it, loopholes remain.

For the longest time, there were no laws at all to protect women from sexual harassment at workplaces in India. The Supreme Court’s Vishaka Guidelines (Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan, 1997) were the primary framework followed in case of such abuse. And yet, when finally in 2010 the National Commission for Women submitted a draft on Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill to the Parliament of India, it too did not include domestic workers. The authorities purportedly argued that the lack of witnesses inside a household would make it difficult to prove instances of sexual harassment, and hence households were excluded from the definition of workplaces. It was only after severe criticism and protest from several quarters, that the Act included domestic workers [6].

However, while in case of other workplaces, the Act mandates the creation of an Internal Complaints Committee, which must take immediate action when a complaint of sexual harassment is made by an employee, in case of domestic workers, this is not possible. The law mandates that every district must have in place a Local Complaints Committee instead, which a woman domestic worker may approach, in case of sexual harassment. This makes their inclusion into the law ineffective in practice, because, added to economic vulnerability of their situation, mistrust in government authorities results in domestic workers’ reluctance in approaching such institutions.

One could argue that unionising domestic workers, in order to make them aware of their economic as well as personal rights can go a long way in redressing this.  There are indeed several workers’ unions that have been working towards this, like the National Domestic Workers Movement, for example, which has branches in 23 states across the country [7], a lot still remains to be done. Another regulating mechanism could be placement agencies. Yet, commentators like N. Neetha have shown how such recruitment agencies instead often add to the abuse, by withholding wages and providing inadequate training. They are also often unregistered themselves, and the lack of any concrete state mechanism to regulate and monitor such agencies allows them to evade legal supervision[8].

Thus, when talking of the safety and security of employees at a workplace, in the specific context of women domestic workers in India, one cannot separate the legal reforms required in labour laws and in laws protecting from personal assaults. The government, thus, not only needs to modify labour laws applicable within the country, but recognize its responsibility vis-à-vis international laws as well.

Global data from 2014, by the International Trade Union Confederation, estimates that millions of migrant workers from poor counties including India are employed as domestic workers in the Gulf countries, and of them, about 2.4 million women end up in slavery [9]. Yet, in spite of being a signatory to several international labour conventions, India is not among the mere 22 countries that have ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention of 2011 (C189) [10]. The convention recognises that not only are most domestic workers women, but many of them are “migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination”, and puts specific focus on developing countries, where because of “historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized” [11]. In light of this, India’s reluctance to ratify this convention underscores the bias inherent in India’s legal mechanisms.

It is interesting that the International Labour Organisation itself recognises the need for safety in domestic work as a separate rubric, by celebrating International Domestic Workers’ Day on June 16,   to commemorate the adoption of the above mentioned convention [12]. The ILO commemoration in 2016 brings into focus the need for the participation of the employers, or owners of households, in a dialogue on the protection of the rights of domestic workers. This reluctance of the employers to participate towards the cause is evident in India as well, as surveys by NGOs like Jagori attest [13]. The household cannot truly be regulated as a workspace, then, if the employers do not come together and recognise their responsibilities towards their employees.

In conclusion, on the occasion of the ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’, in the specific context of women domestic workers in India, one cannot ensure safety or health for the women at risk without first recognising and regulating their workspaces, and this can be achieved only through multiple levels of collaboration between the government, the society and the household itself.

NOTES:

[1] ‘Who are Domestic Workers?’, http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/WCMS_209773/lang–en/index.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Ending Child Labour in Domestic Work’, ILO 2013, http://www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/download.do?type=document&id=21515

[4] Cf. ‘A Report on Domestic Workers: Conditions, Rights and Responsibilities A study of part-time domestic workers in Delhi’, Jagori, http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/Final_DW_English_report_10-8-2011.pdf  , Page 9-10

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, http://www.iitbbs.ac.in/notice/sexual-harrassment-of-women-act-and-rules-2013.pdf

[7] Cf. ‘A Report on Domestic Workers: Conditions, Rights and Responsibilities A study of part-time domestic workers in Delhi’, Jagori, http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/Final_DW_English_report_10-8-2011.pdf, Pages 8-11.

[8] Neetha, N. 2008.‘Regulating Domestic Work’. Economic and Political Weekly,Vol. 43, No. 37, September 13, 2008

[9] ‘Facilitating Exploitation: A Review of Labour Laws for Migrant Domestic Workers in GCC Countries’, ITUC Legal and Policy Brief, Pages 1, 7. http://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/gcc_legal_and_policy_brief_domestic_workers_final_text_clean_282_29.pdf

[10] Ratifications of C189- (Convention Concerning Decent Work For Domestic Workers)  http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:11300:0::NO:11300:P11300_INSTRUMENT_ID:2551460

[11] C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:2551460

[12] ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers begins at home’, http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/events-and-training/WCMS_371983/lang–en/index.htm

[13] Cf. ‘A Report on Domestic Workers: Conditions, Rights and Responsibilities A study of part-time domestic workers in Delhi’, Jagori, http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/Final_DW_English_report_10-8-2011.pdf, Page 20

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