How long can we ignore the plight of domestic workers?

The plight of domestic workers in India is heart-rending. They are an important category that tends to be de jure or de facto unprotected.

Domestic work in our country is characterised by non-recognition, undervaluation, low wages, excessive work hours, lack of benefits or social security, unfair termination of employment, sexual and moral harassment and lack of organisation. 

The prime reasons for their plight are lack of proper labour laws that govern them, indifferent attitude and want of an appropriate forum that can take up their causes.

So who exactly are these domestic workers? A section of our population who have usually been living in slums for generations, with low levels of education and equally high levels of family burden, and those who choose menial work like scavenging, sweeping, cooking, gardening, washing clothes and garments, dropping and picking up kids from home to school and back, driving, etc. As most of these jobs (barring few) are more routine in nature, it does not require any specific form of training or education and hence become an easy means of livelihood.

And of course it’s the spontaneous action of independence not hemmed by any mandatory instruction which prompts them to look at it as the safest job, and for which they are prepared to accept low remuneration when negotiations fail. These factors have led to a subconscious state of acceptability that translates into a submissive worker. Ironically, Labour and Industrial Laws are supposed to be a deliberation of a welfare state designed to protect the humane interest of a worker as well as to undergo research on continuous amelioration of the social security position.
Few years ago, the Central government had introduced provident fund scheme for the unorganised workforce.

However, the scheme did not get optimum mileage as people were worried about refund from authority owing to procedural complexities it involves. Since domestic workers generally are less literate and in many cases illiterate, it prevents them from participating in a corpus that requires some form of literacy to understand the basic procedures. The government did try by recruiting social workers for propagating the scheme so as to reach out to the poorest of the poor, but was unable to convince the low wagers of the benefits of the scheme. For them, a contribution of Rs 20 per month also mattered as they lived by the day without any future planning.

Socio-economic laws

As an ardent observer of the socio-economic condition of our country, I believe that the lawmakers in India make socio-economic laws to be on paper and may be to prove to the outside world that we are socially concerned, though these laws lack governance and cannot be executed. The Constitution of our country has been amended so many times that the original can hardly be found. And, it benefitted only the crème de la crème or the 1,000 odd registered political parties and not the masses. The laws of our country too have been similarly amended to benefit a select group only, leaving the needy out of its ambit. 

Industries today have unions to carryout organised demand and the governments bow to them quickly. Indian industry labourers are very cautious about their rights, but not their duty. This being an organised sector they create pressure and obtain benefits by sharing the spoils with political parties and the government. But who cares about the vast majority of the unorganised sector and domestic workers?

Can the law makers, political parties or industrialists imagine what would happen if our farmers went on strike and refused to cultivate basic crop till their living conditions were improved? Can we imagine a situation if all domestic helps in our country refuse to work for 7/10 days unless their minimum wage per day is made Rs 100? All Indians are happy that there is no organised force in such cases and they are illiterate. The government and other political parties too want status quo. And the end result is a large section of our workforce going unattended and deprived of all the basic rights that a working human being is entitled to.

It is also unfortunate that we live in a country where you stop child labour by a strict legislation and the next day the family will ask for free health clinics, medicine, drinking water and above all food (may not be like the sumptuous palatable dishes parliamentarians eat almost free at the canteen but a basic, coarse belly-filling food). In India, children attend school not to learn but for the free mid-day meal much to the relief of a poor under-nourished and multiparous mother. In a number of states the drinking water scarcity is so much that the women of all ages (including children) spend 3 - 5 hours a day just to fetch potable water.

Something similar is the plight of domestic workers in India and it is high time our lawmakers and authorities concerned wake up and take notice. As responsible citizens, we too need to raise our voice and garner support to bring about a reform and make this sector, which is so important to our daily lives, more organised and clean.

(The writer is senior vice-president & head regulatory at TeamLease Services)

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