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'Bill against sexual harassment a boost to domestic workers'

If ever the logjam in Parliament over the CAG’s report on coal allocations should end, a key bill— The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010— may finally see the light of day.

A crucial amendment to the Bill that was approved by the Cabinet in May was the inclusion of domestic workers within the bill’s ambit.

Should the bill be passed by Parliament, for India’s 4 million women domestic workers, considered to be most vulnerable to sexual harassment, this would a major victory in their struggle for legal recognition as ‘employees’.

Underlining the importance of including domestic workers in the bill, Christy Mary, the national executive coordinator for the National Domestic Workers Movement, told Firstpost: “Firstly, there is no law in India to protect domestic workers. Very few states have included domestic workers under the Minimum Wages Act. And the central government is not a position to pass legislation exclusively for them. Domestic workers are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of abuses. And because of absence of a law, the police also don’t take them seriously. The inclusion of domestic workers will be a boost for them and it will encourage them to report cases. It is a surety for them to protect them from abuse.”

A congregation of domestic workers. AFP.

Domestic workers, according to government data, account for 30 percent of India's female workforce.

The exclusion of domestic workers in the previous draft of the bill had led to an outcry from domestic workers associations.  Academic institutions, government departments and even state governments made suggestions to the Parliamentary Standing Committee (to which the bill was referred to) urging the inclusion of domestic workers.

Arguing before the Standing Committee, the Women and Child Development Ministry had said that it had consciously kept domestic workers out due to “practical difficulties in applying the law within the household, especially as no code of conduct could be laid down within the household”.

The Ministry had further stated that there was no policy for domestic workers yet which laid down their terms and conditions of service and security of work. “Domestic work being a poorly regulated sector, there was a real concern that domestic workers taking recourse to this law may increase their vulnerability,” the ministry told the standing committee.

However, the Ministry’s case that enforcing the bill within the privacy of the home would be difficult has rejected as being ‘unfounded.’

Making a strong case for the viability of including domestic workers, the National Commission of Women (NCW) argued that “the enactment of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 had broken this myth allowing legal scrutiny and extending protection to the confines of the home i.e. the private domain.”

Extending their support to the inclusion of domestic workers in the bill, the Punjab and Gujarat governments also wrote to standing committee.

While the Punjab government said that the exclusion the domestic workers “would make it (the bill) discriminatory in nature especially when the provisions were being extended to the unorganized sector and local committees were to be constituted”, the Gujarat government pointed out that “definition of ‘employee’ should include domestic workers, especially because the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005, did not entitle them (domestic workers) to lodge complaints.”

Significantly, India had voted in favour of International Labour Organisation’s Convention for Decent Work for Domestic Workers which endorsed home as a workplace.

Asked what challenges there could be in implementation of such a law, National Domestic Workers Movement’s coordinator, Mary said, “There should be a clause in the bill that will allow for police inspection of the house and also give the local committee access to the employer in the event of a complaint.”

Mary believes the law will give domestic workers the security they need to make the complaint. “Domestic workers don’t share details unless we talk to them. When they report it, they’ll lose their jobs. Therefore, many domestic workers are frightened and hesitate to report. The live-in domestic workers are most vulnerable to sexual abuse. Legal protection will give them some kind of surety.”

The government, said Mary, should also take responsibility for providing temporary shelters and for repatriation of the victims. “The government can refer the cases to existing shelter homes. And the government make should make efforts to repatriate the victims to their family.”

On the role of NGOs, Mary added: “When cases are reported to us, we will surely take them up. Once the bill is passed, we can refer the case to the police. As NGOs we can create awareness among the public and the domestic workers on the provisions of the Act.”

The bill provides for the formation of Local Complaints Committee by the District Officer (who is the district magistrate or the collector) when ‘internal complaints committee’ is not practical or where the complaint is against the employer himself.

The local complaint committee will comprise a chairperson (“who is committed to the cause of women”), a trade union member, NGO activists, and protection officer appointed by the government under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

The bill now awaits the Parliament’s vote.

And once passed, as the Standing Committee concluded, it would require ‘innovative thinking’ on the part of the government and “pro-active role to be played by the NGOs, Police Stations, RWAs (resident welfare associations) and Panchayats in helping the aggrieved domestic worker to get justice through this legislation.”