While women’s labour force participation in India is amongst the lowest in the world, the country has witnessed a 75 percent increase in women’s domestic work. After various lobbying efforts, national legislations such as the Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act 2008, Sexual Harassment against Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and Minimum Wages Schedules notified in various states, include domestic workers. There remains an absence of a comprehensive, uniformly applicable, national legislation that guarantees fair terms of employment and decent working conditions for domestic workers.
In 2011, an overwhelming majority of the 185 member States of the International Labour Organization voted in favour of adopting the Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189), and its supplementing Recommendation (No. 201). India was among the countries which voted in favour of the Convention, paving the way for the new instruments to emerge. The Convention, often referred to as historic, is the first international labour standard laying down minimum labour protections for domestic workers. India is yet to ratify the convention.
In such a situation, it is imperative to acknowledge the role played by NGOs in development projects, often mobilising, organising and building projects that otherwise would never have been launched. Center for Women’s development and Research (CWDR) is one such women’s NGO which has been educating, organising and empowering domestic workers since 2003. It is significant to mention that CWDR is headed by a women viz., Renuka Bala, since there were such few women headed NGOs back in 1993 when CWDR was formed. The situation may have improved only marginally today.
Domestic work is often a modern form of slavery. Isolated in other people’s home, the labour of domestic workers goes unrecognised, unseen, undervalued and not covered by any labour laws. There is no proper job description for domestic work and no recognition of necessary skills or qualifications. Domestic work is normally characterised by low wages, excessive hours of work with no extra pay, overwork, lack of benefits or social security, unfair termination of employment and employer abuse. Sexual harassment of domestic workers is a common complaint.
In India domestic work is not acknowledged as ‘Work’. Society does not treat domestic worker as ‘productive labour’. The real issue is domestic work whether performed by a house-worker or housewives are erroneously perceived as non-economic and non-productive - not considered as work. Both categories of women are not considered “workers”.
Organising domestic workers is fraught with challenges. Women workers who are struggling to balance their own household work, working in different houses and additionally taking care of child care, and other care work at home are not the easiest to mobilise. Still as organising is often need based it reflects their dire strait which motivate them to come together. It is only such initial investment in terms of time, knowledge and effort which leads to further action in terms of policy, programmes and indeed better and decent work.
Over the years many changes have occurred in the domestic workers sector. However, most of these changes are to give welfare measures for domestic workers and that is not enough. The government needs to regulate domestic work based on the recommendations of the ILO- Convention. In recent discussions held with domestic workers in Gandhinagar slum, Sholinganallur and Thiruvanmiyur it came through that these workers aspire for certain skills. Stitching, baking and spoken English were a few mentioned that would fetch them better wages.
It is ironic that despite the ease that domestic workers provide to millions of households in India, they remain informal workers who are at the goodwill and benevolence of their employers for decent work conditions. Unless domestic work is regulated by the government real change is not possible.
In response to advocacy by CWDR and many other groups pan India, the draft National Policy for Domestic Workers was formulated in 2011, and submitted to the group of Ministers in 2015. It reflects the spirit of ILO Convention 189 and ensures the rights and fundamental principles for domestic work. It is yet to be passed in the parliament. The problem is many of the domestic workers and unorganised sector workers do not know about the government policies and laws, and do not have the capacity to lobby and advocate for their cause. Thus, the task of educating and motivating domestic workers in order to involve them in advocacy and lobbying is imperative. Only this will lead to the power of collective advocacy and lobbying.
CWDR was instrumental in forming a trade union called “Manushi” for domestic workers which has 6000 members today and most of the advocacy work is now centered around “Manushi”.
In line with such an approach, for the International Domestic Workers day CWDR is organising cluster level domestic workers meetings and events in 5 clusters of their working area. Each cluster has 15-20 slums, with around 150-300 domestic workers in each cluster. The meetings will discuss the ILO convention and the draft National Domestic Workers policy. Alongside cultural and sports events will also take place to celebrate the International Domestic Workers Day. A booklet in Tamil language for domestic workers will also be released. It will have important points about ILO-ILC Decent work for domestic workers, Tamilnadu Domestic Workers welfare board schemes and other laws and programmes related domestic workers.
On 16th June a press meet with a large number of domestic workers is taking place to campaign for the adoption of National Domestic Workers policy and to pressurise the Tamilnadu Government to implement the minimum wages recommendation of the Tamilnadu Domestic Workers Minimum wages committee.