Domestic workers still viewed as ‘outcasts’ throughout India

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Woman domestic worker India
A woman domestic worker in India works to prepare rice for consumption in 2012. She will be paid only 100 rupees ($1.65 USD) after drying 80 kilograms of rice grain. Image: S.J. Mohammad/ILO.

(WNN/GOIM) Chennai, INDIA, SOUTHERN ASIA: Ignored, abused and without resources, domestic workers remain to be viewed as outcasts throughout India. JUNE 16, 2013 was ‘Father’s Day’ in India as lovely quotes on fatherhood spilled over from mainstream media to Facebook and Twitter. June 16 was also ‘International Domestic Workers’ Day’ but it seemed nobody in India really noticed. The day had a few women workers with placards marching on the streets of Chennai seeking to fix India’s minimum wages as people walked by. As long as houses were cleaned, dishes done and kids put to bed there did not ‘seem much trouble’ in the world for many who pay little attention to human rights issues.

No matter how essential the services of domestic workers are, the reality is as harsh as the respect given to their profession.

Rough estimates suggest that we have around 5 million domestic workers inside the country today. With a growth rate of 681 per cent since the 2001 Indian census was counted some organizations say the number has reached 6.4 million. Paid domestic work remained a male dominated occupation in pre-independence India, but today women constitute 71 percent of the sector making it the largest female occupations in urban areas.

However India still lacks a comprehensive regulatory mechanism for this sector. The fact that a large number of domestic workers are migrant women belonging to lower caste or ethnic minority communities makes matters complex for all domestic workers who wish for better work conditions.

Maid in India

Fixed minimum wages, work loads that match pay-scales, maternity leave, medical aid and other such basic essentials provided to domestic workers by their employers is still a mirage for most domestics. While all other workers have their own labor unions, domestic workers inside India still remain unorganized. In fact, at a recent meeting of the Union Council of Ministers of India, some Cabinet members expressed apprehensions that if domestic workers were allowed to form unions it would lead to “law and order problems.” These Cabinet members seem to have taken to heart the jokes about maids keeping their employers for ransom.

Forming a protective and sustainable labor union isn’t easy for domestic workers. Traditional places of work like factories or construction sites are considered open spaces by the public, but domestic worker employers do not allow their workers to be approached at their places of work. Targeting workers who live in slums to join labor unions also leaves out a large number of live-in domestic workers, as they remain isolated.

In India domestic workers are not covered by most labor legislation because of constraints within the definitions of the words ‘workman’, ‘employer’ and/or ‘establishment’. The nature of their work, specifically the employee-employer relationship, along with a workplace that is usually part of a ‘private’ household excludes many domestics from receiving any benefits from the existing labor laws. Laws that were created for India’s protected workers include the: Minimum Wages Act 1948; Maternity Benefit Act 1961; Workmen’s Compensation Act 1926; Inter State Migrant Workers Act 1976; Payment of Wages Act 1936; Equal Remuneration Act 1976; Employee’s State Insurance Act; Employees Provident Fund Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act 1972, among others.

Exclusion and discrimination against domestic workers is not only part of India’s landscape, it is also a reality in many other countries.

A recent report covering 65 countries by the ILO – International Labour Organization says only 19 nations have laws or regulations specifically concerning domestic work. The same report revealed that in India domestic workers get only 31.6 percent of the average wages other workers receive. This rate of pay was actually lower than the global figure for domestics receiving 40 percent of the average worker’s pay internationally.

Though some states in India, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Karnataka and Rajasthan have fixed minimum pay wages for domestic workers, domestics have not been able to get a desired result.

“In many of these states, the minimum wages fixed are lower than current rate of wage and in others, the workers themselves are not aware due to lack of organizational support. In addition, there has been no concerted efforts to at least make employers aware through information in the media,” says Christine Mary of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement.

Organizations versus Placement Agencies

Today there are many rights-based organizations working to assist domestic workers with job placements, but placement agencies continue to thrive in all big cities.

Amazingly in the capital city of Delhi, India there are currently 800 to 1,000 placement agencies. Most of these agencies are husband-wife partnerships operating their business from one room apartments. Other agencies have no address and only have a phone number, usually a mobile phone, to operate. These middle men source workers often come from poor and tribal areas inside India promising great work opportunities. Promises sometimes include huge advances from employers. Instead too many times domestic workers are not paid their due wages once they arrive for work. At other times their wages are delayed or a part of their wages are retained by the agency creating the conditions of indentured labor. The involvement of these agencies in women and child trafficking is also a concern.

Nirmala Niketan, a human-rights-based organization functioning as a cooperative for tribal women currently trains and places tribal teenage youth for work in different areas of Delhi. In weekly meetings at the Nirmala Niketan office, these girl youth are encouraged to befriend other domestic workers inside their community, who have found work through outside placement agencies. Vulnerable cases of teenage girls who are involved with unscrupulous agencies are then reported back to Nirmala Niketan and rescued.

Policy or law?

Waking up to the plight of domestic workers in 2009 the Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment set up a special task force to create a national policy on domestic work. One of Ministry’s earliest proposals to extend health benefits to domestic workers through its government program that provides healthcare for the poor called Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna (RSBY). But India Cabinet deliberations on the action to help domestics through public healthcare has stalled and is still under deliberation. The policy for government advocacy intends to converge health and maternity benefits, death and disability benefits along with old age pension for domestic workers.

But not all advocates for domestic workers are impressed with India’s government efforts.

“The very premise that a policy can bring a substantial change is a hogwash,” says Subhash Bhatnagar, legal adviser for Nirmala Niketan. “A policy can never have a mandatory character and will be flouted rampantly. What we need is a central law specifically addressing needs of domestic workers,”  Bhatnagar continued.

More than a stalled government initiative, numerous advocates in India feel it’s the social respect and recognition given to the profession of domestic work that will make the real difference. The fact that India’s economic analysts commonly ignore the financial contribution of domestic workers to the national GDP underscores the suffering numerous women and girls continue to experience.


As an article for WNN – Women News Network from GOI Monitor, Government of India Monitor, some of the text for this story has been re-edited for publication by the editors at WNN.