Over the last decade, India has seen extraordinary growth in the number of its domestic workers. In 2009-2010, the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) estimates the total number of domestic workers at 2.52 million, up from 1.62 million in 1999-2000. Of this, nearly two-thirds reside in urban India, and nearly 57% are women. As in other countries, domestic work as a means of employment in India has undergone what economists refer to as a “rapid feminization,” where almost 75% of the increase in domestic workers over the last 10 years is accounted for by women.
A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) sheds light upon some of the glaring data discrepancies in the various estimates of India’s total number of domestic workers. It states that while official NSSO data posits the number at 2.52 million, the actual number could be considerably higher at almost 4.2 million. Some media peg the total at as high as 90 million workers.
Despite the significant difference in estimates, what is uncontested by all sources is the fact that the majority of domestic workers working in India’s large metropolises constitute migrant women labor. The ILO claims that nearly 3% of the current female workforce engages in domestic labor as a primary means of employment. Domestic work has historically been viewed as the realm of the woman with crucial household chores continuing to be either being unpaid (if performed by a household’s women) or underpaid (if outsourced to a domestic worker).
While the question of why a thriving economy such as India’s has failed to generate an adequate number and variety of jobs for its female populace merits investigation, the most immediate and pressing concern — given the surge in the numbers of domestic workers — points to the need for a thorough scrutiny of the circumstances under which such work is carried out. The mostly female, mostly urban domestic workers in India today continue to live and work in contexts that are best characterized by inequity, as well as a reprehensible precariousness.
Unregulated Work Conditions
Domestic workers are often migrant women hailing from some of India’s most deprived regions, such as the tribal hinterlands of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. Self-styled “agents,” representing private employment services based in cities, recruit and place these women in households to provide domestic services. Other times — as is the case with a sizeable number of Tamil migrants in New Delhi, for example — women migrate to cities and find jobs in urban households through their own informal, word-of-mouth networks. Living a considerable distance away from their familiar community and environment, these domestic workers are susceptible to varying degrees of exploitation.
In India, the operational context for domestic workers is one that is deeply entrenched in the feudal practice of keeping servants. Domestic workers are not perceived or treated as service providers; they hold a subservient position clearly “below” their employers. The relationship between the employer and employee is thus characterized by a highly unequal dynamic with the latter having little power to negotiate equitable employment terms.
In general, wages for domestic workers tend to be low. In the Tier-I city of Bangalore, for instance, domestic workers earn a monthly income of anything between INR2,000 (USD ~US$37) and INR5,000 (~US$USD92). This effectively translates into daily wages of anywhere between INR66 (~US$1.20) and INR166 (~US$3) for a 6-8 hour workday. This is far below the minimum wage stipulations in Bangalore’s home state, Karnataka, whose government determined a fair, minimum monthly income of INR5,044 (~US$93.40).
While wages for domestic workers in India vary minimally from city to city, they are on a whole lower than the remuneration received by other labor. With the exception of few Indian states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Bihar and Kerala — domestic workers are not included in the purview of state-specific minimum wage legislation. The salary a worker is paid thus tends to be at the discretion of the employer or recruitment agent. In the states where wage legislation exists, its enforcement and efficacy has yet to be formally assessed.
The burden of low wages is exacerbated by long, unregulated work hours and no formal benefits for domestic workers, such as leave (e.g. vacation days, sick days, holidays, maternity leave) or social security (e.g. pensions or insurance). The few attempts to address this gap have been poorly executed. In June 2011 for instance, the Government of India announced the inclusion of domestic workers as beneficiaries in the Rashtriya Swasthya Bhima Yojana (RSBY), a health insurance scheme covering below poverty line populations from the unorganized sector. This effort, however, failed because no detailed implementation mechanism for the identification and subsequent disbursal of benefits was developed.
Proposed Legislative Interventions
In 2010, the National Commission for Women drafted The Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act to address the various problems faced by domestic workers. Taking cognizance of the issues particular to domestic work, the Act notes, “…Only a Comprehensive Central Legislation specifically designed to meet the working condition of the domestic workers…can ensure the end of the exploitation of these domestic workers.”
The Act provides for the creation of solid, formal, institutional mechanisms operating at the central-, state- and district-levels for the regulation of domestic work. It proposes a three-tier mechanism that comprises of the Central Advisory Committee, a State Advisory Committee and district-level boards, each of which shall be enlisted with the duty of registering domestic workers, employers and placement agencies. The district-level boards will ensure decent working conditions for domestic workers, covering norms for rest periods, weekly leave, food and the maximum number of work hours. They shall also act as arbitrators of dispute to avail of benefits such as accident relief, financial assistance for the education of children and maternity benefits.
While well-intentioned, even a cursory review of the mechanism proposed by the Act raises important questions. The mechanism proposed has devolved far too many responsibilities to the boards without accounting for how they will be met, especially given the diverse administrative capacities required. More thought needs to be put into how exactly the proposed bodies shall be prepared to effectively provide each of the outlined services.
What the Act has also ignored is the pressing need for formal employment contracts between workers and households. The absence of clearly drawn terms of employment creates loopholes for both the employer and the employee in the original oral agreement. Making employment contracts imperative, however, poses significant questions: Will the neo-feudal employer be able to treat his domestic worker as a formal employee and uphold the contract? Will modes of payment to domestic workers undergo a change (i.e., from cash to check), given the possibility of tax benefits that a contract entails? If so, how would it be ensured that all domestic workers have access to a bank account, especially given the low rates of financial inclusion among the female urban poor? More significantly, what body would be in charge of ensuring the upholding of such contracts?
Though there is need for larger institutional structures to ensure implementation, the benefits accrued would be justified. With no formal contract in place, neither employer nor employee are accountable to any specific terms. For example, due to the insecurity of their jobs, domestic workers tend to take long, unannounced absences from work for personal reasons (e.g. visiting family, illness), or simply quit without adequate notice. A pre-determined contract could ensure that workers have a more stable livelihood while also ensuring that the quality of services received by employers is more standardized.
Another important step towards the protection of domestic workers is the inclusion of domestic work under the schedule of protective statutes applicable to other categories of workers. The Final Report of the Task Force on Domestic Workers, commissioned by the Ministry of Labor and Employment and the ILO, calls for domestic work as a category to be included in the Central List of Scheduled Employment. Doing so would enable the setting of standard measures for domestic workers that is applicable across all Indian states. This is especially useful for states that do not currently specify minimum wage levels for domestic workers. This recommendation could prove to be crucial to reforms, but is yet to be implemented.
On a global level, the ILO’s Congress passed the Convention for Domestic Work in 2010. The document outlines a desirable, basic minimum standard in terms of employment, wages, minimum hours, occupational safety, social health and social security for domestic workers. The Indian government’s non-ratification of the convention — despite the huge presence of domestic workers in the country and the many problems compounding them — is indicative of the fact that the rights of domestic workers in India is simply not seen as a political priority.
Incidence of Abuse
Because the political agenda does not make domestic workers’ rights a high priority, their exploitation is conspicuous. In May 2012, news channels reported the merciless torture of a 14-year-old girl by her software engineer employers in Noida, in the National Capital Region of Delhi. It was alleged that the young girl was regularly beaten and not allowed to leave the premises of the household of her employers. Instances such as these, however, may well be only the tip of the iceberg. The lack of adequate alternative means of employment available in the labor market is worsened by the largely informal, and therefore unobservable, nature of most domestic work arrangements. Many times, poor women are left with no choice but to take up employment in unprotected, demeaning conditions.
Given that all work is performed within the largely private space of a household, domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse and harassment. Sexual abuse, in particular, has become widespread: sexual abuse of domestic workers has become so rife that it took protests by the National Domestic Workers’ Movement before the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Bill was updated in 2012 to include domestic workers as a category of employees under its protection.
Dignifying Domestic Work
While regulation of domestic work is pivotal to reform, it is also true that socio-cultural codes have a significant impact on the quality of lives experienced by domestic workers. As long as domestic work and workers are perceived through a neo-feudal lens by the persons availing of these services, the problems shall continue to be trivialized. Like all informal labor, domestic work has historically lacked recognition and has been typically undervalued for its significant contribution to urban economies.
While several states in India today have independent domestic workers’ unions, there is much ground to be covered with regard to inclusive coverage and cohesive mobilization. Mobilization, according to a 2012 op-ed in The Hindu, may help neutralize the existing power imbalance and help boost the bargaining position of domestic workers. But in the absence of a formal means to identify and enlist domestic workers, formal mobilization remains a challenge.
The impending need is for a regulatory overhaul to be accompanied by an evolution in the way employing households treat domestic work. Domestic workers constitute a very large and especially vulnerable community amongst the Indian urban poor. The non-recognition and undervaluation of domestic work has only contributed to their socio-economic marginalization and, more disturbingly, the “normalization” of highly denigrating work conditions. While some efforts have been made by the government to address the issue, there is a need to rally the more voluble and politically influential urban middle classes – majority employers of domestic workers – for communal awareness and sensitivity. This is a vital, though not the only, step to prop up the prospects of the female domestic worker in the city.