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Overlooking the plight of domestic workers
Household workers are an invisible part of our informal economy. Sadly, as a workforce, they remain vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and modern-day slavery, writes UPASANA BEHAR
Domestic work has been one of the oldest jobs in the world. Due to various reasons like drought, lack of agriculture, lack of employment option, land acquisition in the name of development, displacement, harassment of Dalit class, lack of basic amenities like medical facilities, scarcity of water etc, people migrate from villages to cities. These migrants are mostly poor and disadvantaged and they get employed in unorganised sectors in towns. Women are forced to work as domestic helps because of high living and poor economic conditions.
Thirty five types of work classify as jobs for domestic workers. The work that fits into this category includes gardening, baby-sitting, cooking, sweeping, swabbing, dusting, washing utensils, washing clothes, attendants (for sick and elderly), drivers, security guards, car cleaning etc. While some of these jobs are done by male domestic workers, almost all other jobs are done by women domestic workers. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are about six million domestic workers in India. According to the National Sample Survey 2011-12, there were 2,38,92,791 domestic workers in the country out of which 4,05,831 were women and 21,79,403 were working in the city. In five years between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, the number of female domestic workers increased by 22.5 lakh. For this reason, the share of women in working population has increased from 11.8 per cent to 27.5 per cent.
Domestic workers have to face many problems at the home and work space. On one hand, they do not always get support from home. On the other, the situation at their workplace is mostly that of discrimination and insecurity. Society’s view of domestic workers is not good in general. Their job is not considered dignified and their work is not given importance and they are considered to be servants instead of workers. Their employers, from time to time, give them leftover food, torn clothes, and worn out shoes etc. In case there are incidents of sexual harassment and assault, society blames them.
Female household workers invest their entire earning on their families. Yet, they rarely have a say in major family decisions. Their husbands normally spend their wages on alcohol and, hence, the responsibility of running the house falls on the women. These women do not have any social or economic security. There are no domestic women workers associations or NGOs that come forward to help them.
When there is injustice against them, nobody comes forward to fight for them. In the absence of such organisations, their demands do not become known to the public. Female domestic workers work for almost 14 hours daily, thereby falling prey to fatigue, joint pain, back pain etc. Most of the time, during the work, their hands are in water containing detergents or phenyl, which causes wounds on the fingers. Usage of cold water in winters to wash clothes, utensils or swab the floor accentuates the development of arthritis in the fingers and hands of these women. They are not allowed to use toilets in the workplace, due to which they drink less water and often develop urine infections. There also is a possibility of kidney damage as well.
There are many occasions when these women become victims of physical violence, sexual abuse and inhuman behaviour at the workplace. According to a research by Human Rights Watch, domestic servants in India have to face extreme harassment.
In February 2014, the Ministry of Women and Child Development informed the Rajya Sabha that cases of violence are increasing with domestic workers in the country and between 2010 and 2012, 10,503 cases of domestic crime against domestic workers were registered, in which 3,564 cases were registered in 2012, 3,517 in 2011 and 3,422 cases in 2010. They do not get any facilities like weekly off, annual vacation, maternity leave, sick leave, insurance, social security benefits etc like other workers. If there is an accident at the workplace, the employer does not pay for the medical treatment.
The contribution of domestic workers in the country’s economy is never assessed; they are not given the status of workers. Because of this, they do not have any specific pay scale and do not enjoy pay hikes or allowances like workers in other sectors. The wages given to them are less than the minimum wages in the country. Placement agencies make a lot of false promises to these workers of getting big salaries, allowances and bonuses. But they sometimes exploit them financially and also physically.
Efforts by the Central and State Governments: In order to safeguard the rights of the domestic women workers, in 1959, Domestic Workers (Conditions of Employment) Bill was introduced, which could not be passed. Again, the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act (2008) did not implement its provisions properly. The ILO announced the rights and policies, principles of domestic workers in the Domestic Workers’ Convention on June 16, 2011. The ILO has also drawn specific attention to domestic workers, who have a right to “enjoy effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence”.
In 2015, the Labour Welfare Board drafted a national policy for domestic workers in which the minimum wage, hours of work, annual leave with salary, medical leave, maternity leave, social security, accident and health insurance and protection from sexual abuse were to be included in the contracts between domestic workers and their employers. The National Health Insurance scheme was announced in this year’s Budget which will cover 10 crore ‘vulnerable’ families. The health coverage of the scheme will be up to five lakh rupees per family per year for secondary and tertiary hospitalisation. Domestic workers have been included in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.
Minimum wages have been fixed for domestic workers in seven States in India, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and Rajasthan. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have constituted the Domestic Workers Welfare Board; the Chhattisgarh Government has given them the status of a labourer. In Madhya Pradesh, under the Chief Minister’s Urban Domestic Working Women Welfare Scheme, the female domestic workers are registered and are provided social security, education, health treatment, maternity leave and insurance.
Household workers are poor, deprived, belong to lower classes and do not have the strength and freedom to speak. These workers also face forced migration. There is lack of welfare schemes; they are faced with major problems like lack of opportunities to move forward. The biggest problem is that they do not have any organisation because they have little or no bargaining skills.
The SDG aims to achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women by 2030. The Government has committed to this. Therefore, the Government will have to make serious efforts to recognise domestic workers as women and give importance to their work.
The Government should bring out a national policy at the earliest for domestic workers by providing skill development trainings to them. There should be a legal contract between the employers and the domestic workers. Every female domestic worker should be given information regarding sexual harassment at workplace.
The Government has to create more welfare schemes such as a discount for smart cards to travel in public transport or lower rate of interest on bank loans. At the same time, domestic workers must be organised to fight for their rights and they will have to link themselves to the wider struggle of the workers. Only then they and their work will be given honour and respect.
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