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New rights for domestic workers

New rights for domestic workers



New Delhi: In the week after Indian delegates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) voted to adopt employment standards for domestic workers for the first time, the government announced the extension of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) to cover domestic workers, entitling them, and three members of their families, to health insurance cover. The ILO decision marks the first time the organization has set standards in the informal economy. Yet to be ratified by the government, they set limits on working hours and in-kind payments, ensuring a day per week of holiday and mandating clear terms and conditions of work.

The two decisions, along with a series of recommendations from the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the ministry of labour and employment, mark a breakthrough in social security for the unorganized labour force, and especially, for domestic workers, who have hitherto been among the most isolated of India’s casual workforce. NAC advises the government on the implementation of the governing coalition’s manifesto.

Safety net: A domestic worker at a residence in Mumbai. Photo Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Despite all the social inclusion legislation on India’s statutes, many of those eligible still slip through the cracks— among them workers in the unorganized sectors.

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One group has received particular attention this year: India’s domestic workers—the maids and other household staff, who have traditionally been seen as servants in the home, “part of the family” even, rather than employees. An aspect of the problem has been a lack of awareness among domestic workers themselves, said Surabhi Mehrotra of Jagori, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with them. “Most don’t think of this as a form of work. They see it as an extension of something they do at home,” she said. “Before they can negotiate for their rights, they need to see themselves as workers.”

But there are signs that this attitude is set to change. In the past month, voices from several corners of the government have joined to declare that various new rights and social services ought to be extended to this often-neglected group. NAC, chaired by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, wrote to the President in April recommending that states adopt policies for domestic workers ensuring fair pay and working hours and adding that the policy should include protection against sexual harassment at workplace.

Changing attitudes

Efforts to enact legal protection for domestic workers are not new. Since independence, there have been various versions of Bills to provide safe and fair working conditions for household staff in Parliament. Nationally, there are around 11 versions of Bills to regulate and improve the condition of domestic workers, according to Reiko Tsushima of ILO, including the 2008 domestic workers Act, which would require compulsory registration of agencies, employers and workers and regulation of working conditions. That Bill, like its predecessors, never made it past the draft stage.

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On the face of it at least, it seems there is now a renewed focus on finding an equitable solution. Some academics and sociologists suggest that the issue has come to a head due to the growing need in urban areas for domestic help. A 2010 McKinsey and Co. study estimated that by 2030, nearly 590 million Indians will live in the cities, up from 320 million now. This rapid urbanization, combined with the rise in the disposable incomes of a growing middle class, have made domestic help more necessary than ever. Add to this a rising number of working women who are not able to cope with full-time housework, and the demand is further intensified, according to Madhu Kishwar, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “The demand and supply problem is a big issue,” said Kishwar. “In Gurgaon, the wages now are sky high—I like to say that it is easier to get a wife than to get part-time domestic help.”

Such workers are particularly valued in the largest urban centres, according to Bina Agarwal, director and professor of economics at the Institute of Economic Growth. “Earlier you only had live-in domestic help, but now families are more nuclear, space is constrained, it’s a much more fluid market,” she said.

Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research, agrees that social mobility is a driving factor behind the urgent demand for domestic help. “It’s demand-driven employment in the informal sector,” she said. “That is why it’s becoming an important debate here. Wherever there is scarcity—and there is now scarcity in certain big cities—there is more collective bargaining power by the workers themselves.”

However, this phenomenon is still restricted to a handful of major cities. In rural areas and smaller cities—where the supply of domestic workers by far outweighs demand—employers hold most of the power in the relationship. “Certainly there would have to be a cultural shift in the mindset behind the client-worker relationships,” said Kumari. “It’s an extension of the feudal society mindset towards people who do menial jobs.”

Expanding legislation

The extension of programmes such as RSBY or other state legislation to include domestic workers may well be a better option than the creation of a Bill specifically catering to the workers themselves, according to some experts in the field. Enacting new legislation can be a slow and complicated process in India.

Last year, letters from the ministry of labour to the states recommended that they extend policies such as the minimum wages Act to domestic workers and to register the “placement agencies” that link employers with household staff under the Shops and Establishments Act to ensure that there is no exploitation.

ILO hopes to resolve such issues with its new standards. Along with the new rights comes a new confidence on the part of workers to band together, unionize and negotiate with employers. “Now that domestic work is recognized as proper labour market activity, it will make their status visible,” said ILO’s Tsushima. “And as workers engaging in labour market activities, they can no longer be denied fundamental labour rights.”

Implementing change

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Experts and NGO workers, while applauding ILO’s efforts, have suggested that the implementation of these rights, even if ratified by the government, will be complicated. Subhash Bhatnagar, who runs Nirmala Niketan, an NGO that provides rehabilitation and training to domestic workers who have been abused, also worked to enact labour rights for construction workers in the 1990s. “With that legislation, we took 10 years—from 1986 to 1996—to get it enacted and only in January 2010 did the government give detailed information to the states on how to implement it,” he said. “Even now, few construction sites are aware of the law, even in the Capital. Domestic workers will be harder to reach, they will be the last to know about this law.”

More useful, said Bhatnagar, will be the government’s inclusion of domestic workers in the social security net of the RSBY. Under the scheme, up to four members of the family will have hospital access. Funds from the national social security fund for unorganized workers will be channelled along with money from the Centre and state governments to provide the beneficiaries with identification certificates from the employer, resident welfare association, registered trade union or the police. “They have not announced how it will be done yet,” Bhatnagar said. “It took more than a year to get the construction workers their cards, it could be as long for domestic workers.”

Kishwar agrees that the implementation of such standards will be the biggest problem. “Including these workers in social security measures is a very positive step,” she said. “But delivering them is a problem. I am only concerned about the delivery mechanism. The system is not geared for it yet—the government is claiming they can provide social security schemes. Let’s see.”


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