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Whenever adversity strikes, it is always the vulnerable who are at the receiving end of it. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. The two waves of the virus have hit domestic helpers, casual workers and migrant labourers hard. A study published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) mentioned that domestic workers were excluded from the economic and safety nets provided by the government. The report also recognises Occupational Safety and Health(OSH) practices that could be implemented in the current pandemic situation. The information was apparently based on domestic workers' insights, trade unionists who work with them and experts in India. The report focuses on wages, inequality, structural loss, and income regulations to explain the need to brace up for workers' rights belonging to the unorganised sector.
Several reports since last year have mentioned that domestic helpers are the worst affected socially, economically and mentally because of the pandemic. Since they work in close proximity to people's homes, they are severely at risk of contracting the virus or being a carrier of the same. In India, the conditions are worse as they have had to deal with social stigmas for ages. Worse still, when mediums of popular mass mediums such as advertisements propagate stigmas about them being "unclean, untouchable", it makes things bad for them. A case in point is an advertisement released by appliances firm Kent RO last year after the coronavirus outbreak. The ad read: "Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Choose KENT Atta & Bread Maker for hands-free kneading of dough. Let automation take care of hygiene this time! Don't compromise on health and Purity." It received widespread backlash for being classist and the company was forced to take it down.
However, the stigma still persists. In fact, it is so strong that some maids have complained about their employers not allowing them to drink water from the utensils used by the former or use washrooms. COVID dealt a big blow to these workers. With the loss of jobs and household budgets slashed, it sparked a re-negotiation of their already paltry wages. India fails its poor because the spirit of 'untouchability' stills exists in our minds.
A majority of the domestic helpers and casual laborers are poor and illiterate. In most cases, they are unaware of the existing labour laws in the country. Therefore, these unskilled ready-to-work people are undervalued, underpaid and abysmally regulated. The government needs to recognise these workers and register them for workshops that teach them the legality of how the urban labour markets function. Lack of adequate wages, work conditions and undefined work timings, abuse, forced migration, lack of welfare measures and lack of skill development result in social stagnation.
There are no laws that demand the registration of domestic helpers in India. The numbers have varied across the decades. In the 1931 census of India, 2.7 million people were categorised as 'servants'; in the 1971 census, the number was capped at 67,000. However, a 2017 study by ILO mentioned that India housed at least 4 million domestic workers. Differing statistics make it more difficult for governments to provide schemes for their upliftment. Thus, domestic workers are severely exploited and are not even provided with minimum wages in many cases. The working hours for domestic work can vary from 8 to 18 hours every day. Live-in helpers have to work for a minimum of 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and part-time workers work in three to four houses to make ends meet. All other facilities like salaries and medical expenses are at the mercy of employers.
Health risks and financial vulnerability were two results of job losses due to the pandemic. Women lost jobs, and many did not receive wages for not working while the lockdown was on. Some domestic workers were asked not to work in other households by their employers, fearing a risk of infection. Domestic workers went unnoticed for the schemes provided by the government for different sections. The National Commission for Women (NCW) drafted the 'Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act 2010' bill. Unfortunately, little progress has been made so far. Among other things, the bill called for compulsory registration of the employer and the employee with the District Board. This mandated the collection of cess from all those who employ a domestic worker to calculate and maintain a social security fund that could be accessed through an identity card.
While there are numerous aws like the Maternity Benefit Act and the Minimum Wages Act for people working in unorganised sectors, none of them apply to domestic workers. Even as successive governments continue to draft policies, they are yet to become laws.
The mere fact that domestic helpers lack the status of recognised labourers is proof that viewing them as a security threat is only making things worse for them. The mindset while making policies must make a paradigm shift from a law and order situation to one solely about workers' rights that is centric to human rights. The need of the hour is to enact a Domestic Workers' Regulation of Work and Social Security Act. With the implementation of such a law, it would become easier to recognise and understand domestic work as mere labour, which would address society's devaluation of household chores.
Institutional law is required to ensure safety, provide for health emergencies and cover their children's education, among many other things. Just because the workplace of a domestic worker is a private household, one cannot use this as an excuse to justify the government's hesitance to regulate and govern their occupation. At the same time, every anti-sexual harassment law recognises private households as a workplace.
There is a desperate need for domestic workers to organise and educate themselves effectively to improve their working conditions and terms, mainly because their employers are in an economically superior position in society. While there are millions of domestic workers in our country, one cannot permit such a massive proportion of our population to remain ungoverned outside the law. After all, beyond health and economic risk, lies the factor of mutual respect and basic human dignity. Attaining the vision of creating better workplaces for domestic helpers is a far-fetched dream, and given India's setup, where they already belong to a disadvantaged section, sturdy laws are likely to aid workers' struggle.
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