Centre's draft policy for domestic workers lacks teeth, fails to chart employee-employer relationship
At this point, it is imperative to look at domestic workers as a sector that cuts through several issues like caste and class divides and discrimination.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment is likely to announce the draft national policy for domestic workers later this month. This policy is a step forward in the formalisation of domestic workers; it envisions that states would set up boards for registration of workers in order to bring them into the fold of social protection, as well as make recommendations on working hours, minimum wages and leave entitlements.
While this draft policy has been in the works since October 2017, a national policy for domestic workers has been discussed at length for at least a decade now. However, an important question is whether this policy is enough to recognise the rights of domestic workers in the country.
The situation of domestic workers in India is dire, especially because they are a vulnerable population. There is no exact reported figure for the number of domestic workers in India. Estimates from the 61st Round (2004-05) of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) suggest that there is a total of 4.75 million domestic workers.
Recent rounds of NSSO data estimates for employment and unemployment (the 66th and 68th rounds in 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 respectively) indicate a downward trend in the number of domestic workers with a total of 3.9 million. These, however, are reported numbers; the unofficial numbers may be higher, as suggested by the National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWM).
According to the NDWM, there are about 50 million domestic workers in India, and among this, a significant majority were women and girls. In 2009-10, about two-thirds of all domestic workers were employed in urban areas. However, it should be kept in mind that a majority of domestic workers in India are minimally educated or illiterate as well as low-skilled and this creates an environment of even more exploitation oppression.
Currently, there exists no legal framework where domestic workers can fit in or their rights can be recognised. In fact, in the purview of labour laws, the work of domestic workers is not termed as work – cooking, cleaning, babysitting, dishwashing, and the like are not considered or recognised as work by the state. Domestic workers in households are termed as "help" in common parlance, and not workers. When a sector is so vast and is still not considered as an economic activity, it is very difficult to regulate it.
India has two laws which address the concerns of domestic workers and, in a circuitous way, regard domestic workers as "workers": The Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act, 2008, (UWSSA) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
However, neither of these legislations identify domestic workers as rights-bearing workers; the former is a social welfare scheme and the latter is one that protects working women at the workplace from sexual harassment. Because the nexus of market and state has kept domestic work outside the realm of regulation, neither the Maternity Benefits Act nor the Minimum Wages Act applies to domestic workers.
Moreover, India is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation's 189th Convention, known as the Convention on Domestic Workers, but has not ratified it yet. With a framework that intentionally keeps domestic workers away from the protection of the law, it is impossible to move the needle on establishing accountability of the state to recognise their rights.
The reluctance of the government to regulate domestic work is often justified by indicating that the workplace, in the case of domestic work, is a private household which cannot be regulated by the authority of the state.
But this argument is baseless as it is possible to chart out obligations of the employer and the rights of the workers in a manner that the state does not encroach upon the household.
In fact, the National Platform for Domestic Workers submitted a draft bill, the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill (2016) in January, 2017, which goes above and beyond "state-centric welfare measures" that claim to "empower the domestic worker" only in ways that she is eligible for social protection schemes but does not feel the need to negotiate with her employer on labour law matters such as minimum wage, leaves and respect and dignity at her workplace.
The Bill calls for the compulsory registration of the employer as well as the employee with the district board to create a layer of regulation. It also creates a mechanism where there is a mandatory collection of cess from the employer for the maintenance of a social protection fund for domestic workers, where access is provided through an identity card. While the Bill is not perfect, its framework works towards a rights-based approach by moving from a law and order paradigm to a rights-obligation model.
The impending policy, on the other hand, is likely to be a strategy without teeth. The Ministry of Labour and Employment, in its notice on the intention to formulate a National Policy for Domestic Workers, proposes that it is interested in facilitating recognition of domestic workers as workers, and would encourage their affiliation with unions/associations, and promote their rights through an enhancement of skills development, along with promises of expansion of other legislation to grant domestic workers all the rights that are enshrined in labour laws, such as minimum wage, equal remuneration, etc.
However, it fails to propose any obligations or duties that it might put in for employers or recruitment and placement agencies. This is problematic because the policy already foresees the power relationship between a domestic worker and the employer, and proposes to maintain it. Moreover, knowing how the government thinks, it is also possible that the policy might have clauses around protection against trafficking, which will, in all probability, impede the right to mobility and labour of domestic workers.
At this point, it is imperative to look at domestic workers as a sector that cuts through several issue-matrices such as caste and class divides and discrimination, migration, trafficking, violence and violations, and enact a legislation that addresses the rights of those employed in the sector. A policy, that washes its hands off the variegated issues around domestic work, is unfair and does very little to entrench the regulation of the relationship between the employer and the employee, which results in an environment of further abuse and exploitation.
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