Domestic workers: Still an exploited lot

Ten rooms and ten toilets to clean, staircases and corridors to sweep, plates and utensils to wash and a salary of Rs.3000 a month with no holidays, no Sundays and no benefits- this is the ’job’ that Sarada(45) does in an upscale locality like Adyar in Chennai. She says the ‘going rate’ is around Rs.1000 for each category of housework, but nobody follows the rate. Despite bringing the domestic workers under the purview of The Minimum Wage Act 1948 in 2007, Tamil Nadu has failed to fix a minimum wage for domestic workers.

There are about 4.2 million domestic workers in India and they are in high demand with the changing nature of urban lifestyle. Yet, they continue to live and work without respectable social conditions and basic amenities. Women form the bulk of this work force. The absence of a fixed wage structure forces them to work in many households to earn a decent living. The 189 convention of ILO ensures various rights to the domestic workers; fixed wage, weekly holiday and medical benefit being some of them. India is yet to ratify the convention.

Due to the nature of their job and their dispersed locations across the city, domestic workers have mostly remained unorganised. A fact taken advantage of by employers and private domestic workers agencies who tend to exploit them by forcing them to work for long hours for lower wages.

Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, an independent trade union federation, fights for the rights of domestic workers and have been demanding to get fixed minimum wages for them. “In 2004 we demanded a minimum wage of Rs 30 per hour. Now we are demanding for Rs 50 per hour as the cost of living has gone higher”, said Panchalai, a member of the Sangam. The Sangam is also demanding free bus passes from the government for the domestic workers since a large proportion of their    earnings is spent on commuting in buses for work (Housing,Homes and Domestic Work,EPW,26 Oct,2013).

“In 2009, there was a meeting between the Sangam and the authority and an advisory committee was formed. But till now the recommendations of the committee have not been implemented,” said Panchalai.

Karnataka,Kerala , Maharashtra , Bihar , Jharkhand, Rajasthan and  Orissa are some of the states which have fixed a minimum wage for the domestic workers. “The Maharashtra Government has formed a board to implement these fixed wages, but the process has not been completed”, said Christy Mary, National Executive Coordinatorof National Domestic Workers Movement(NDWM).

While taking care of someone else’s home, these women often find it difficult to manage their homes “I have to rush home at 12 pm and cook for my family; otherwise my kids will stay hungry,” says Sita, another housemaid in Adyar.

Need to regularise domestic help agencies

There has been a mushrooming of agencies due to the high demand for domestic workers in urban areas. The wages paid by these agencies however has no uniformity. An agency in Thiruvanmiyur in Chennai said that they charges Rs.7000 for 8 hours of work with weekly holidays and an increment  and entire cash goes to the maid. But the maids are either unaware or unwilling to go through these agencies. “They will take a commission of almost 50% from our paltry salary, we will rather find work on our own and get the full salary,” claims Sita.

Lack of Social Security and poor working conditions

While on the one hand the demand for domestic workers has increased, the working conditions and facilities remain poor. Sarada has a daughter suffering from partial blindness, but does not get any medical benefits from anyone; she depends on chance loans from employers. Her daughter is pursuing a BA degree without scholarships or fee waiver. “We have sent our younger daughters to a childrens’ home near our village because we cannot afford to keep them here,” she said. The absence of any pension scheme makes life of the old domestic workers difficult. “I don’t know what I will do when I get old,” said Sarada. Though a task force of Labour Ministry recommended the domestic workers to be brought under the Rashtriya Swasthya BimaYajona in 2011, it has still not been done.

Welfare Boards fail to reach the workers

The Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Welfare Board was set up in 2007 to ensure proper working conditions, medical benefits, pensions and loans. But awareness about the board among the workers is very poor. In 2008 it was made compulsory that the domestic workers have to go in person to join the welfare board. This deterred some of them from going to the boards.“We tried to register with welfare boards but the process is long and troublesome. I stood in queues for hours to get a card for my mother but they asked for many documents like Voter ID and Ration Card that she did not have because she had migrated from a village. And they said we have to pay registration fees and other forms of cash which came to a large amount.” said Sita.

Rising Cases of Abuse of Domestic Workers 

Domestic workers are most vulnerable to physical and mental abuse by the employers. Though fewer such cases gets reported in the media, the recent incident in Delhi, where a teenage domestic help was subjugated to inhuman torture, highlights the extreme form of abuse and unsafe working conditions  faced by these women daily. While domestic workers have been included in The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010, the rules for the committee and the details of compensation and punishment are yet to be framed

States such as Maharashtra have set up a tri-partite board to address the grievances of domestic workers with representatives from the Government, the workers and employers. Most states haven’t formed such bodies.

The domestic workers continue to work without a respectable social condition and basic amenities. Fixing a minimum wage will be the first step to ensure that this community gets their basic rights.

  Laws on Domestic workers’ rights:

  • The Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Welfare Board was constituted on the 22nd January 2007.
  • The notification for the Minimum Wage Act for Domestic Workers was passed in August 2007.
  • Karnataka government passed the Minimum Wage Act for Domestic workers on 1st April 2004
  • Notification for Minimum Wage Act for Domestic Workers were passed by the following State Governments: Kerala (23rd May 2005), Andhra Pradesh (24th April 2007) and Rajasthan (4th July 2007).
  • The Governments of Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa have included the Domestic Workers under Minimum Wage Schedule and fixed Minimum Wage for domestic workers.
  • Maharashtra Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Act was passed in 2008, the rules were only framed in 2010.
  • Domestic workers are included under The Sexual harassment of Women at Workplace Bill,2010 which was passed in parliament in May,2012

 Arindam Majumder, Archita Suryanarayanan, Asian College of Journalism

(Images are from The Hindu available on the internet)

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