An Inquiry into the State of Domestic Workers in Urban India
by Nikhilesh Prakash
Prajnya Summer Intern 2015, Student at Ashoka University
India’s unorganized sector plays a pivotal role in the development of the country’s economy. In the Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, defined the sector as consisting of all “unincorporated private enterprises owned by individuals or households engaged in the sale and production of goods and services on a proprietary or partnership basis and with less than ten total workers” (National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, 2007). It is estimated that the unorganized sector employs 90% of the country’s total workforce and produces 50% of the total national product (National Statistical Commission, 2012). However, in spite of playing such a crucial role in the development of the country, this sector is often un-recognized and those involved in it are subject to adverse socio-economic conditions.
Domestic workers comprise a large portion of the unorganized labor in urban cities. While no accurate figures are available, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 2.5 million and 90 million domestic workers in the country, and the number of workers has been on the rise. However, in spite of affecting society and the economy in a number of positive ways, domestic workers (and all other kinds of unorganized laborers), are inadequately protected.
This paper will assess the socio-economic problems faced by domestic workers and then go on to provide some possible solutions to these problems. Since the number of women in this line of work is on the rise (in contrast to their male counterparts), this paper will first state the problem in general, and then focus on how this problem affects women workers. Most of the research for this paper has been done online. This paper also draws heavily from my interaction with Ms. Renuka Bala, the President of Center for Women’s Development and Research (CWDR). CWDR works towards the empowerment of women domestic workers and they were at the forefront of the struggle to get the minimum wage established for them.
Section 1: Defining Domestic Workers
Before answering the main question of this paper, i.e. “what are the problems that domestic workers face?” it is important to define who exactly falls under this category. The Draft National Policy on Domestic Workers as recommended by the Taskforce on Domestic Workers defines a domestic worker as “a person who is employed for remuneration whether in cash or kind, in any household through any agency or directly, either on a temporary or permanent, part time or full time basis to do the household work, but does not include any member of the family of an employer”. The report further classifies domestic workers into the following categories –
- Part time worker who works for multiple employers in a day for a particular number of hours, doing a certain set of tasks for each employer.
- Full time employer who works for a single employer for the entire working day and the returns to his/her house.
- Live in worker who not only works for a single employer but also lives with that employer.
Domestic workers are required to do a wide variety of tasks which may include (but aren’t restricted to) cleaning, cooking, washing, shopping and babysitting. The worker may be required to perform one or more of these tasks. A domestic worker’s wages are usually decided through negotiation between the employer and the employee. It is generally a function of the area of employment, the tasks the worker performs and the hours the worker works.
Section 2: Problems Faced by Domestic Workers
In this section of the paper, I will highlight some of the major issues faced by domestic workers. It must be noted that this is not an exhaustive list, but rather one that covers the biggest issues.
As mentioned earlier, the state of domestic workers is abysmal. Nivedita Menon, in her book, Seeing Like a Feminist, states that domestic workers in India have the “worst aspects of both feudalism and capitalism”. Menon nicely sums up the treatment meted out to domestic workers, who are neither treated as equals by their employers (by contrast a capitalistic contract is usually thought to be between two equals), nor do they have a human relationship with them (as was characteristic in the feudal system). They are subjected to the hierarchy of the feudal set-up as well as the exploitation of capitalism (Menon 2012). The following are some of the major problems faced by domestic workers –
- Lack or recognition and organization of domestic workers: Traditionally the private sphere was the realm of the family and the public sphere was the work place environment. However, with the advent and rise in prevalence of domestic workers, there has been a juxtaposition of these two spheres. Since the place of employment of domestic workers lies within the private sphere, they are often times not considered to be employed workers (as in any other work place environment), but rather as paid help. While these two essentially mean the same thing, it takes away from the domestic worker, the status and respect that is accorded to an employer. Instead, domestic workers are treated worse than dogs, as one domestic worker said in an interview (Menon, 2015).
Since domestic workers are not recognized, many people don’t feel the need to make laws aimed at improving their working conditions. They have no specific laws targeted at them and therefore they have no employment security, access to social security and there is no fixed employer –employee relationship. Furthermore, since most of the unorganized sector is unregulated it is not common for those working in this sector to be exploited (Jhabvala, 1998).
Another deterrent is the fact that since the work place is in the private sphere, enforcement of legislation very difficult. It is not possible to have uninformed checks in people’s houses to ensure that proper working conditions are maintained since this is an invasion of privacy, and checks that are conducted with prior notification defeat the purpose since it will allow the employer to ensure that everything is in order on the day of the check. Lastly, since it is an unorganized and individualistic sector, there are very few organizations and collectives that bargain for the rights of the entire working community.
In the context of women, this non-recognition means that their jobs are merely an extension of their household duties. Instead of empowering them, non-recognition of domestic work further tightens the shackles of patriarchy and ensures that the work that women do is not recognized and not appreciated. It reinforces the long held belief that women belong to the private sphere and men to the public sphere.
- Meagre wages: Since there is insufficient legislature targeted at domestic workers, very often the wages they receive are very low and insufficient to provide for even the basic necessities. In a study conducted by Jogori in 2010, on part time workers in Delhi, it was found that the average monthly wage was Rs. 2194, i.e. lesser than Rs. 80 a day. Meenu Sur, general secretary of Gharelu Mahila Kamgar Union stated that “The average wage they [domestic workers] earn in the industrial city of Kanpur isn’t even enough to cover the food expenses of their family” (Menon, 2015). In another study, about 63% of domestic workers in the sample, between the ages of 21 and 50 earned less than Rs. 8 an hour (Vimala). There are several reasons that result in such meagre wages. Firstly, only 7 states in India enforce minimum wages. In the other states the wage is decided through negotiations between the employer and employee. Since domestic workers come from low income groups, they are in dire need of money and will be willing to work even for very low wages. Further, employee’s need for money puts the employer gives the employer negotiating power.
Since it seems that domestic work is gradually becoming more of a female dominated profession, the low wages received by workers further strengthens the patriarchal presumption that the work done by women is necessarily worth less than work done by men.
- Inability to secure other jobs: A very high percentage of domestic workers tend to be unskilled and illiterate. Jagori, in their study noted that only 27% of the workers in their sample set had ever attended a school of these, almost half (43%) had attended school only between the ages of 3 and 5 years. Domestic work is one of the few avenues of employment for unskilled and illiterate workers. The options for employment for women domestic workers is further reduced since many don’t want to work in the public sphere due to safety concerns. Further, they want to choose their working hours so they have time to devote to their family. Therefore, due to unavailability of alternatives domestic workers continue to do what they do despite the various problems they face since they are desperate for money and don’t have other employment options.
- No fixed work hours: In most cases domestic workers have no fixed work hours. They are expected to work till everything that need to be done for the day is done. This is a problem on special occasions such as festivals or when the employer has guests. During this time the domestic work piles up, and the worker is expected to work longer hours and do more work without an increase in pay. Since women employed in this field also have to do the house work in their own homes, long working hours will result in neglect of children and other household duties.
- Inadequate paid leave: In Jagori’s report about 75% of workers in their sample received only 2 days of monthly leave. A Case Study on Thrissur Corporation on the Socio Economic Status of Domestic women Servants, however found that more than half of the workers in their sample received 4 days of paid monthly leave (Vimala). Absence beyond this limit would result in cutting of wages, even if the reason was genuine. Therefore it is seen that in most cases there is no paid sick leave. A domestic worker in an interview said, “We are not given off days and when we fall sick or take leave, our wages are deducted for that day. When we return the amount of work is double, but the employers don’t take that into account” (Menon, 2015).
- Physical, Emotional and Psychological humiliation: A mentioned earlier in the paper, the treatment meted to domestic workers has been said to be worse than the treatment of dogs. Domestic workers have said that domestic labor is more tedious and humiliating than sex work. Physical, Emotional and Psychological humiliation are a part of a domestic workers job. They are subject to much physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Due to the fact that they are usually from lowers castes they are often taunted and denied the use of certain amenities. In many cases domestic workers aren’t allowed to use toilets. This has serious health effects as many domestic workers suffer from urinary tract and bladder infections, as well as stress that they undergo while controlling their bladder (Menon, 2015). This problem is further compounded for menstruating women, who may not be able to go to work due to lack of these facilities, and therefore lose out on their wages. Further, lack of private spaces to change sanitary products can lead to a whole range of health issues such as Hepatitis B and bacterial infections (see detailed list here: http://www.sswm.info/content/menstrual-hygiene-management). The sub-human treatment that is given to domestic workers, is the cause of severe humiliation and poses a threat to their physical and mental well-being.
Section 3: Possible Solutions
In the final section of my paper I will provide a few possible solutions to improve the working conditions faced by domestic workers. The information I received from Ms. Bala was very useful in writing this section of the paper.
- Recognizing Domestic work: Domestic labor is not considered work by many people. This perhaps stems from the fact, that traditionally domestic work was done by women, and the work done by women is seldom valued. Recognizing that the work done by domestic laborers as being valuable, not only at the micro level, but also at the macro level, will be the first step in the empowerment of domestic workers. Recognition of value will result in laws for their protection and general appreciation for their work, which in turn will reduce their exploitation and improve their work conditions.
- Minimum wages: As was mentioned in the previous section of this paper, the wages that domestic workers receive is often insufficient to meet their daily expenditures. Enforcing minimum wage laws can reduce this problem. Those who are against minimum wage would argue that making a minimum wage that is above the existing market price will reduce the demand for domestic labor. As a result, there will be surplus supply, resulting in unemployment. However, those who are for minimum wage laws argue that the price the price level isn’t the only factor that should be taken into account. They argue that the demand for domestic workers is on the rise since the number of women (ones who traditionally did domestic work) taking up a profession is increasing. This coupled with the nuclear family structure that is prevalent, which is without any elders at home to look after the children result in a greater demand for domestic workers. Due to this level of demand, an increase in the wages of domestic workers will not reduce the demand, and therefore will not cause unemployment of any considerable degree. They believe that it is not excess supply which is the cause of the low wage rate, but rather it is the fact that workers don’t have negotiating power.
- Professionalizing domestic work: It is important that domestic work be regulated like any other profession. There should be an agreement between the employer and employee, prior to employment which lay out the details of the workers job, such as working hours, wages, holidays etc. These details must be in accordance with norms that are prescribed by the Government. This will ensure that workers know exactly the extent of their duties before taking on a job, and can’t be exploited once they do start working.
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